When you're living with ADHD, you're not living alone. Often, there's more than one person in your life that is really, really important. However, the ADHD brain has a difficult time attending to things that are important if they are not immediately interesting.
According to ADHD coach Dan Duncan, creating tools for helping someone with ADHD shift their attention can be critical to a close relationship. He advocates establishing a two-step process for 1) getting the attention and 2) interacting with someone who has an ADHD brain. This sounded about right to our ears!
These graphs show how the window for flexible focus is narrower in the ADHD brain. Importance and interest are less likely to correlate.
Notice that the ADHD brain can have a range of FOCUS that is about ⅓ that of other brains. Hyperfocus and hypofocus ranges are larger for the ADHD brain. If you'd like to learn more, check out Attention, Interest & Importance in ADHD with Dan Duncan.
Timeframe is everything
Separate getting attention from beginning an interaction.
The ADHD brain often has a very short future orientation -- about three seconds ahead. When others open communication with what needs to happen in an hour or next week, that's harder to hear and attend to for an ADHD brain. Instead, start with what you need right now - attention. Once that connection is established, then the reason for the attention can be better heard, understood, and acted upon.
A pause between asking for attention and beginning interaction sounds really useful! How do we know which methods for getting attention are the most likely to work for a person's unique ADHD interests?
Why Visual Queues May Fail
The ADHD brain often has a slower visual habituation, and so we may process or select visual information to focus on less readily than others. Waiving hands in front of a computer screen may do more to confuse and irritate the ADHD brain than help to shift attention.
Pick the best tool for the job
One tool that we adore at Starshine Health is the 5 Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman. We very much enjoyed his audiobook, a good format for commuters, family road trips, those with co-occurring LDs, and people who just like the sound of a rich, interesting voice.
Gary Chapman's approach is simple, and his free quiz will help narrow down the best types of tools for getting the attention of an ADHD brain. It also helps ADHD brains know how best to communicate appreciation back to the person who cares enough to make an effort to separate getting our attention from beginning an interaction.
Shifting focus often involves a request to shift activities, so we've tried to select examples below that are more the honey-do type. We encourage secret experiments, though open ones are a lot better! Involve the person with ADHD in this puzzle, if you can. Requesting their problem solving assistance in your best guess of their love language might be the place to start working with this communication skill!
If the love language is Words of Encouragement
The words we choose and our tone have tremendous power to hurt and heal with this love language. This person will be sensitive to harsh words, exaggerations, high volume, and tone. These may result in a shift of focus to hurt feelings or annoyance instead of attending to your interaction. Get close, and use a kind, soft library volume. Avoid escalating vocabulary if you need to try a few times to get the attention you want. Verbal appreciation for giving attention and starting interaction may be a good experiment to try as well. This is an ADHD brain who may love creating an attention code word or phase with you.
If hyperfocus is on a sports event on TV or a video game, first verbally acknowledge that the person with ADHD has done a big thing by shifting their attention. For example, "I really appreciate that you paused the game." Then, start discussing the reason why you requested their attention. They will get a little neurotransmitter boost from your words of encouragement that will help the ADHD brain refocus, making the shift neurochemically rewarding - and easier the more you practice together.
If the love language is Acts of Service
This person loves to help, and they love to be helped. When a spouse or boss can help design a way to indicate that a shift in attention is needed, the signal can be verbal, visual, or something else entirely. Look at the person with ADHDs secondary love language for clues on what types of signals to try first. This person is probably more than happy to try it out for you!
Use verbs of doing and state benefits to open up interactions. For example, "I need something from you. I'd like to go to the grocery store, and I need to unload the boxes from the trunk. Can you pause what you're doing, and give me a hand?"
If the love language is RECEIVING Gifts
This is a person who responds the most easily to physical symbols of affection and appreciation. Gifts don't need to be expensive. This person with ADHD might enjoy a love note that is also a to-do list.
One strategy for shifting attention would be put something in their hands. If you want your partner with ADHD to interact with the children so that you can take a shower, hand them a puzzle, book, or toy that the kids might like.
If the love language is Quality Time
The best way to get a person with ADHD and a quality time love language to shift focus is to choose language that brings you together - even if the activities you're switching to are separate. The more you can emphasize being with others or working as a team, the better.
"I'd like you to spend some time with the kids," could be a great opener. Once the attention is clearly shifted to you, then begin the meat and potatoes of your interaction. Even, "I'd like to talk with you about something important," is a good experiment to try. If the shift doesn't happen immediately, get closer and try again without raising your voice. Yelling is not quality time unless you're at a hockey game.
If the love language is Physical Touch
This might be the easiest love language at home and the most challenging in the work place! A person with ADHD and a love language of physical touch probably won't hear a thing you say until there is a bodily sensation bringing out of hyperfocus and back to everything else around them. This may look like holding a hand, putting an arm around them, or even adding some movement into the objects they are touching. If this energy transfers to their body, it may be enough to open up the space for a shift of focus.
This person may also startle easily if they are in hyper-focus and suddenly feel a hand on their back. Their conscious brain probably won't process that someone is behind them. Approach from the front or side unless it is Halloween or you really need to get their attention.
What stories do ADHDers and those who love them tell about this difference in interest-importance and focus? Now that we've looked at the challenge and solutions, what new story can we write? How do we take responsibility on both sides of communication?
Authors note: my fiance tried to get my attention while I was hyperfocused on formatting this blog post, and I have no idea what he said to me. He knew I was feeling low on neurotransmitters (read: easily annoyed) that day. I noticed a lot of irritation in body when he tried to get my attention!
For those with ADHD, pay attention to the feelings and sensations of focus shift. It can feel like your gears are grinding because they kind of are. Try to recognize when these feelings of annoyance or anger may be coming from the hard wiring in your brain. It takes practice to pause and communicate from the heart.