A Reflection: The Failings of an NT’s Hyperfocus

07 Oct

About a month ago, a female client walked out of group yelling, crying, and vowing to never come back. Prior to this exit, Maggie and I had worked together for almost three years individually and in group.

At the time of the walk-out, she was in a group of four boys. We had decided upon specific therapeutic goals related to frustration management and anger control and developed individualized tools for her to use as coping skills. She had participated with members of this group for an extended period of time, one of whom she hung out with semi-regularly. In many ways, this group “grew up” — through their elementary years, into middle school and on the cusp of high school — together. But, these boys had become more of a curse than anything else for Maggie, some of which was no fault of their own and some of which they brought on with their behavior (which was one of the reasons we were all together in the first place). So, Maggie and I put a light at the end of the tunnel using our goals to guide and graduate her onto a different group (of girls).

With this issue in the background, Maggie’s group was embarking on a goal that involved getting to know a classmate at school for the purposes of possibly hanging out with them. Just so you know, this goal was crazy, and I knew it. It was lofty for some, impossible (at this time) for others, and oddly simple for yet another. That other being Maggie.

As the weeks moved on, scaffolding, role-playing, analyzing, practicing, and arduously working toward the goal, Maggie’s discontent grew. From the moment the idea was presented to the group, she reacted as though I’d ask them for a kidney. She huffed and puffed (put couldn’t quite blow the goal down). To say the least, it plagued her. Each week, she became more and more resentful. Each week, I heard a new explanation as to why the goal was “bad”, including: feeling as though she was “using” the classmate to accomplish the goal, not having enough time to form a friendship (not the goal I set to them), and feeling as though she was already able to “do it”.

By the week of the storm out, I was sensing the impending “storm”. Before group, as four other adolescents piled into my office, she talked to me in the hallway, expressing her frustrations about the goal. We proceeded into group without the time to address her thoughts as thoroughly as she or I would have liked. Group was derailed by negative comments that I could not redirect. I tried to explain that her issue could not derail the whole group’s work. She framed the situation as a power struggle between she and I. I tried to re-frame it, showing her that the struggle was truly with her own ability to accomplish the goal. In the end, well, you know what happened.

I saw Maggie tonight for the first time in several weeks. Her vow to “never come back to group” has been and continues to be true. We talked this issue through for the last time, agreeing to disagree on several components of the situation. In the end, I don’t think Maggie learned much from the situation — and she shouldn’t, really. I, on the other hand, walked into that storm knowingly unprepared, making mistakes that could have been avoided. I learned in my own NT way the effects of a characteristic symptom of ASD: hyperfocus. Whereas I’ve seen it so often put to go use, I failed miserably this time. Here’s to hoping it’s a while before that storm comes through again.


2 responses to “A Reflection: The Failings of an NT’s Hyperfocus

  1. CorinaB

    October 7, 2010 at 6:03 AM

    To be perfectly honest, I would probably object to the goal as well, if only on basis of principle. It’s like what they say about an apology; it’s not sincere if it’s forced. To hang out with often does mean, for us, to create a relationship/friends. Personally, I can’t see why anyone would hang out with another person who wasn’t their friend. So the goal translate to “actively go out and force a relationship with someone”.

    Yeah, I can see how you meant to help; you want to help build social skills so that they can make friends. And yeah, you made a mistake. But give yourself the benefit of the doubt that you can recognize that you made a mistake, and so both you and Maggie can learn from the experience. Or at least not be harmed from it.

  2. jholverstott

    October 8, 2010 at 3:14 AM

    I appreciate the kind words. I think we have minimize the harm!


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