How Attention Can be a Friend and a Foe to Autistic Adults

Strengths and challenges of autism

Next in our series about the duality of autism: the power of attention. In today’s digital world, we’re living in an attention economy. With endless amounts of information, news, videos and music available at the touch of a screen, attention is a scarce resource everyone is competing to get.

The term ‘attention economy’ was first coined by Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon who said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” We feel it every day – email pings, text alerts, stat tickers during a sports game, and even the plethora of advertisements we see out in the world as we work, play, study, and explore.

For students with autism, attention can be a source of strength or a significant challenge. Let’s discuss a related key strength and support need as outlined by AANE “What is Autism” resource.

Strength: Strong Focus

My clients have an incredible variety of interests like anime, air travel, the aviation industry, marine biology, music, and Dungeons and Dragons.

I’ve learned about humane dog training practices, the rich and diverse world of cosplay and fan fiction, and the intricacies and responsibilities of being a Dungeon Master through my coaching conversations. The passion and exuberance my clients feel for these topics is truly inspiring.

According to AANE, for autistic adults, this strong focus can manifest as taking an interest in a particular subject, being able to concentrate on a specific topic for long periods of time and not wasting time on superficial topics or hobbies.

I often encourage my autistic clients to think about their special interest as they explore majors and career paths.

Here are a few examples:

  • A passion for video games can lead to a career in graphic design
  • Strong empathy for animals can lead to volunteer opportunities in the veterinary field
  • Interest in the arts can lead to meaningful extracurricular activities like in-studio and theatrical arts
  • Dedication to building complex models can lead to internships in engineering fields

Whether these passions give you clues to potential career paths or simply serves as meaningful activities to do with friends, it’s worth taking a closer look at those activities where you’re able to get in the zone for prolonged focus.

Support Need: Regulation of Attention and Impulses

On the flip side, autistic adults and students may have difficulty finding focused attention for topics or activities that may be necessary but not as interesting. This can look like having a hard time:

  • Deciding what is relevant and what is extraneous
  • Shifting gears from one activity to another
  • Feeling isolated if a particular interest is unique or uncommon
  • Vulnerability to stress

As my students progress to independent people, there’s many “adulting” activities that are not fun but are imporant. For example:

  • Navigating insurance claims for medical appointments
  • Ensuring your car is safe and well-maintained
  • Going grocery shopping and preparing meals
  • Checking in with friends to maintain social connection

Embracing both sides 

The ability to focus comes up with many of my clients. We work together on strategies to help them focus on mundane tasks or create environments that are conducive to focus based on their individual preferences. Some tips that have worked well include:

  • Make it interesting by incorporating your special interest. For example, if you need to write a research paper, choose a topic related to your interest so you enjoy diving in to learn more about the topic.
  • Use your special interest to supplement your income. I have one client who turned a special interest in air travel into a side hustle as a travel agent. Another client creates models based on anime and D&D storylines and sells them.
  • Use your special interest as a motivator. Reward yourself for time spent on a necessary but uninteresting task with 30 minutes of your favorite anime or a favorite craft project.

Regardless of how you like to focus, it’s worth examining what activities make you lose track of time. Those moments can give you clues about your work, your hobbies and your friendships as you build an independent and fulfilled life.

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Beth Felsen on Linkedin
Beth Felsen
I'm an autism mom to a wonderful young adult. I'm also a success coach at Spectrum Transition Coaching working 1:1 with autistic young adults to prepare them for the transition to college, career, life.
Beth Felsen

Beth Felsen

I'm an autism mom to a wonderful young adult. I'm also a success coach at Spectrum Transition Coaching working 1:1 with autistic young adults to prepare them for the transition to college, career, life.

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