This is the internet weblog of Bix Frankonis.

Hyperfocus Versus Task Switching

I’ve been getting down in the dumps a bit lately, wondering why so many autistic people seem to think that being autistic comes with some set of “superpowers” when I feel like no one ever provided me with that particular handbook. I even bailed on a brief experiment in following autistic people on Tumblr because of it. It probably also partly explains my general absence here on Medium.

In all likelihood it’s intermingled with knowing that once I clear some hurdles with my nonprofit’s next major physical relocation, I’m going to need to take another stab at working with Vocational Rehabilitation and in order to avoid a repeat of earlier mistakes I’m going to need to find ways to adequately explain to them, and therefore to potential job placements, how my being autistic will interact with a new workplace.

My first real post-diagnosis employment experience was an emotional disaster, so the stakes are pretty high.

I have to communicate things well, and in advance, but if I haven’t been seeing this whole experience so far in any real positive ways, how do I convince a prospective employer that I am a positive addition for them?

Then, today, I just sort of randomly realized that the one frequently-mentioned autistic “superpower” that I actually have is so-called hyperfocus— but then, par for the course, almost immediately I saw the pitfalls as well.

The short version is that hyperfocus is what it sounds like: the ability to intensely concentrate on a task to the exclusion of basically everything else, up to and including frequently forgetting to take a break to go to the bathroom or wondering why you’re suddenly very shaky and it turns out it’s because you haven’t eaten anything in the four hours you’ve been working on something.

You can accomplish a lot through hyperfocus, but there’s a catch for potential employers: it’s not exactly an on-demand feature.

Part of why hyperfocus can result in so much getting done is because by its very nature it runs uninterrupted. It’s not focus, let alone hyperfocus, if you’re expected to multitask or outright switch to doing something else instead. This is especially true for many autistic people, as near as I can tell, because of a common problem with task switching.

For most allistic people, I sort of assume that when you are asked to stop what you’re doing and work on something else, you see two things: your current task and your new task. If you do have some sense of autistic people having difficulty switching tasks, maybe you can grasp the idea that autistic people instead might see three things: their current task, the transition, and the new task.

Here’s the thing for me, and I’m betting for many other autistic people as well, however: task switching isn’t three things, let alone two things.

It’s five things.

  1. The current task.
  2. Winding down from the current task.
  3. Switching gears.
  4. Spooling up for the new task.
  5. The new task.

Each one of these things requires its own, separate, independent expenditure of energy.

(All of this, of course, ignores for our purposes here the fact that being asked while doing a current task to switch to a new task itself is a new task. The energy expenditure can become sort of fractal, I guess, but I don’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole here.)

Even if an employer is willing on their part to expend the time, and therefore money, required for me to go through all five steps involved in task switching, that still means on my part that I’ve used up energy I might need for something else later on. Like, say, walking from work to the bus without crying. Or even just the grocery errand that I really need to run on the way home.

(The energy drain of that five-step process for switching tasks will be clearer to any employer who is familiar at all with Spoon Theory, since they will grasp the idea of someone having only a finite number of very discrete units of energy, and understand that conserving spoons is in the best interest of both employer and employee alike.)

What I realized, then, is that while I do possess the autistic “superpower” of hyperfocus, the context for it must be spelled out very clearly to Vocational Rehabilitation and therefore to any prospective employer.

For example, if there’s going to be task switching in my job let it fall during natural transitions built into the workday, e.g. breaks and lunch. This works even better if you tell me beforehand that when I come back I’ll be doing something else. My brain already understands those transition points in the day, and so they are great opportunities to switch me over to a different task. Alternatively, task switching can happen even more naturally: when one task is finished, I can switch to another. Task completion is yet another transition point which my brain effectively grasps automatically.

These natural breakpoints lessen the energy expenditure required for winding down and spooling up. In a sense, using natural breakpoints closely mimics a three-step process of task switching.

I’m feeling a bit better, then, about this whole autistic “superpower” thing people keep going on about.

I’m still nowhere near celebrating being autistic. I’ve no shame about being autistic, but for me the post-diagnosis process has been aggravating and somewhat debilitating. I’m grateful for the ways in which it’s explained so many things that before only had the apparent explanations of “failure” and “fuck-up”, but if ever there comes a time where I’m proud of being autistic… well, let’s just say I don’t see that time on the immediate horizon. It is what it is, nothing more.

I suppose right now I’m a bit mercenary about it. What I need is to identify the ways in which being autistic is going to affect taking another stab at Vocational Rehabilitation. I need to know how to talk about it in ways that will provide a realistic picture for any prospective employer. I don’t really have the luxury of wondering about how my being autistic impacts my identity. I have to focus (no pun intended) on how it’s going to affect my survival and my self-sufficiency.

Hyperfocus is one autistic “superpower” I do apparently have, but it comes with its own pitfalls, kryptonite, and potential confusions for employers.

The trick is going to be finding effective ways to communicate all of this ahead of time, for this and for any other powers, if any, being autistic allegedly grants me.