How do we explain hyper focus and flow to people who don’t experience it like we do?
My relationship with the world means that I interpret and understand things in terms of energy. Others might use cognitive descriptions where I tend to talk about emotional involvement, connection and emotional energy.
When Autistics hyper focus we tend to “plug into” or fully engage with what we’re doing. Words like “engrossed in” are often useful to describe our experiences. But what does it feel like?
Let me take you on a little journey…
Imagine you haven’t eaten breakfast but you usually do. It’s four hours til lunch time and you can’t stop thinking about food. You think about what you’ll have for lunch and decide on a sandwich. You build that sandwich in your head, choosing the bread, the butter or mayo, the fillings one by one…you can almost taste it.
Your tummy rumbles as lunch time eventually draws near. You head to the shop nearby and order your sandwich-and now you hold it – precious in your hands- just as you had imagined it all morning. It smells so good!
Back to the office/ home , fix yourself and drink and sit down to eat your sandwich. You savour the first bite and then gulp the next two in an effort to quell the demons rumbling in your stomach. This sandwich and you are locked in this experience, you are totally “plugged in” to this experience. You are mindful, you are at a level of consciousness seldom experienced by some people. You are in “flow”. You and the sandwich are all that exist right now. There is harmony.
Next thing your phone rings, breaking your “flow”, taking you back into a different level of consciousness. It doesn’t feel good, you get a fright as you’re pulled from one mind space to another.
It’s your friend on the phone who needs your help straight away. It’s hard for you to leave your sandwich because you need to “unplug” from the experience – you were so looking forward to finishing it.
It’s hard to leave the sandwich but you know your friend needs you so you say goodbye to your sandwich and promise it you’ll be back. You hop in your car/ bike/ take the bus/ walk to meet your friend.
All the way there you’re still thinking about your sandwich – you’re still emotionally attached to it. You meet your friend and find it hard to concentrate on what they’re saying because your mind keeps drawing you back to that partially-eaten sandwich. You are not fully unplugged and you are not able to fully engage with your friend because of that.
So actually you and your friend may have been better off if you had finished your sandwich because you would have unplugged naturally when it was finished and you could’ve given your pal your full attention.
People might say that Autistics have difficulties with transitions or leaving tasks unfinished and that can be true for many of us. The reason is often because we are emotionally invested or emotionally tied to the task at hand. We are in flow state. Transitioning from flow state is like transitioning from a creative process- we need time to first finish and then unplug.
When something breaks our state of flow it can feel unpleasant, maybe even frightening, or overwhelming and there is a fear that we can never return to that exact state of consciousness because sometimes we can’t. What was being created while we were in that state belonged to that space and time and it can be impossible to recreate that later on- just like the build up to eating the sandwich it can take a lot of thinking and imagining and emotional energy to get into that state of harmony. And leaving that state of harmony before our creation is complete is difficult on an emotional level. It doesn’t feel “right”.
Whether it’s an Autistic kid in school or at play, or an adult at work or play finishing the task means we can naturally leave that flow state and return to another level of consciousness. If we don’t- well we’re going to be distracted anyway while trying to engage in the next task and feel “wrong” for a while afterwards.
It’s better for us to naturally unplug when the task comes to a natural end than someone cutting the lead with a scissors, leaving us in a state where we are neither plugged in or plugged out- the lead is still attached but going nowhere