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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Autism and the State of Flow

Updated: Jul 13

By Patty Laushman


First introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his groundbreaking 1990 book, flow describes a mental state during which an individual is fully absorbed in what they are doing, losing awareness of time and feeling intrinsically motivated by the activity itself. Although this phenomenon is universal, it has an interesting significance in the context of autism.

A man doing his work while in a flow state.

Many autistic individuals have special interests and intense focus. When an autistic individual engages with a special interest, they may not only exhibit remarkable concentration and dedication to the interest but also derive immense joy from it. In some cases, this can lead to the individual entering a flow state, which can be both a refuge and a source of personal growth.


Understanding and harnessing the power of flow in autism can have many benefits. It can help with emotional well-being, enhance learning and skill development, and improve productivity. However, flow also comes with its own set of challenges and considerations that should be accounted for. As noted in a recent study, although flow states allow autistic individuals to feel good about themselves while in one, they can be hard to break away from, which can have repercussions.


This blog post will explore the complex autistic experience of flow, its benefits, its challenges, and how to best harness this wonderful state of being.


The Autistic Experience of Flow

To enter a state of flow, several characteristics are required. The task needs to have clear goals and be "autotelic," which just means that the task by itself is intrinsically rewarding. The individual also needs to have a sense of control over their actions and environment and receive unambiguous feedback in response to their actions.


The challenge of the task must be just beyond the individual's skills to create a bit of a stretch. There is laser-focused attention, and all of this results in the experience of a loss of self-consciousness, no awareness of anything except the task itself, and and altered sense of the passing of time.


Let's look at some of these criteria in the context of autism.


Intense Engagement with Special Interests

A woman painting on a canvas in an art room.

In the context of autism, engaging deeply with interests is not just a pastime; it’s a profound and meaningful autotelic experience that can deeply enhance an individual's quality of life. When autistic individuals connect with these passions, they often experience a deep level of engagement that leads to the next criteria for flow.


Deep Concentration

Autistic individuals often concentrate deeply on tasks or activities. This is especially true for activities that align with their special interests. This heightened level of concentration facilitates the entry into a flow state, where they can become fully immersed and lose track of time and external distractions.


Skill-Challenge Balance

Flow occurs when the individual's skill in meeting the challenge is just beyond their current skills. For autistic individuals, this balance is often achieved when they engage in activities that match their specific skills and areas of interest. This then paves the way for flow states to emerge and enhances their engagement and satisfaction with the task.


Reduced Awareness of the External Environment

During flow, autistic individuals can become less aware of their surroundings, including the passage of time and even basic needs like hunger or thirst. As they become engrossed in an activity, peripheral awareness – including the passage of time – may fade into the background. This intense level of concentration and immersion leads to both the benefits and challenges of flow as the state can both enhance productivity but also cause basic needs to be neglected.


Relationship Between Hyperfocus and Flow

Flow states are also similar to another state of deep concentration autistic and other neurodivergent individuals experience, hyperfocus, and I would be remiss if I did not mention this.


Hyperfocus, as the name implies, is an intense state of focus, a cognitive phenomenon that involves reduced awareness of sensory and environmental inputs. This level of focus closely mirrors how people in flow states also become absorbed in an activity. That said, there are some key differences.


  • Where hyperfocus hasn’t been well-defined in research studies, flow states have been studied for years.

  • Hyperfocus might be more challenging to control and may require external interventions to shift attention whereas flow typically allows for a smoother transition back to other tasks.

  • Additionally, flow is generally sought for its positive emotional experience and benefits to well-being while hyperfocus is more driven by an intrinsic pull towards specific interests or activities.


Benefits of Flow for Autistic Individuals


Reduced Anxiety and Stress

Engaging in flow-inducing activities can have a calming effect on autistic individuals. When deeply absorbed in a task, external stresses can fade into the background. This immersion can not only offer a break from daily stressors but also lead to a sense of peace and fulfillment.


Enhancement of Positive Emotions

A male surfer experiencing positive emotions as he's about to surf.

For autistic individuals, entering a flow state during a beloved activity can lead to feelings of happiness and accomplishment as they extend their skills in their area of passion. These emotions can act as a counterbalance to the frequent frustrations and challenges autistic individuals face in other areas of their lives, and regularly experiencing flow may contribute to a more positive self-image and emotional resilience.


Accelerated Learning in Areas of Interest

The intense focus and dedication autistic individuals exhibit during flow states often result in rapid skill acquisition and knowledge gain in their areas of interest. This accelerated learning can lead to a high level of expertise which can provide a source of personal identity and pride.


Enhanced Productivity

Flow allows autistic individuals to harness their natural ability for intense focus on areas of interest. When an autistic individual intensely focuses on a task, their productivity is boosted and can result in the production of exceptional-quality work. 


Challenges with Flow

On the flip side, autistic individuals may get so absorbed in the state of flow that they forget about other tasks they need to do!


Difficulty Transitioning to Other Activities

Autistic individuals immersed in a flow state may struggle to transition out of this state. The shift from a state of intense concentration to other activities is not always seamless and could potentially lead to moments of stress or frustration.


Neglect of Basic Needs

In some cases, an autistic individual may become so absorbed in their flow activity that they neglect basic needs like eating, drinking, or sleeping. Even if the deep immersion helps focus and productivity, it can be unhealthful when experienced for extended periods of time. In extreme cases, if such behaviors persist, the individual can potentially develop physical health concerns.


Interference with Daily Responsibilities

Flow states can also interfere with the completion of daily responsibilities or commitments, such as schoolwork, household chores, or job-related tasks. When someone becomes deeply engrossed in a flow activity that differs from their non-preferred tasks, the disconnect can negatively impact their ability to complete other important tasks, resulting in falling behind on their responsibilities and consequent stress.


Social Isolation

A socially isolated young woman looks out of her window.

While flow activities can be fulfilling, they are often solitary. Although this can be satisfying and productive, they must be balanced with activities with others to reduce the risk of social isolation.


Overstimulation and Burnout

Extended periods of intense focus can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, especially if the individual struggles to recognize their limits. This relentless concentration can escalate into overstimulation, a state that, if not carefully managed, may later lead to burnout.


How to Best Harness the State of Flow


Balance Interests with Responsibilities

The deep engagement in personal interests that often accompanies flow states can be rewarding. However, it's important to ensure that this intense focus does not overshadow other important responsibilities. Structuring the day to include time for work, study, and personal interests can help maintain this balance.


Flexible Scheduling

An autistic adult writing out their plans for the day.

Given the unpredictable nature of flow states, having a flexible approach to scheduling can be helpful. Incorporating periods of unscheduled time within one's daily or weekly agenda can create the necessary space for these spontaneous bouts of intense focus and creativity.


Have Transition Strategies

Since it's easy to get lost in time once a flow state starts, if you have something important on your schedule, it can be helpful to set incremental alerts on your phone or computer leading up to the start of the scheduled activity. Additionally, including transitional activities in your routine, such as a short walk or a relaxation exercise, can help bridge the gap between the immersive flow state and your next task.


Recognize Signs of Overstimulation

It's important to be aware of the signs of overstimulation or burnout and to take proactive steps to mitigate these risks. Proactively addressing these signs can prevent the negative consequences associated with prolonged periods of deep concentration. Strategies like establishing time boundaries for engaging in flow activities can serve as effective measures to counteract the potential for overstimulation.


Conclusion

Flow in the context of autism can be a wonderful and complex phenomenon. For autistic individuals, flow can be an incredible gateway to harnessing their unique abilities, managing stress, and finding satisfaction in their passions.


The deep dive into special interests, ability to maintain prolonged focus, and positive emotions highlight how flow positively affects autistic individuals. These experiences provide avenues for deeper connections with their special interests, personal growth, skill development, life satisfaction, and the possibility for increased emotional resilience. 


However, it's important to be aware of the potential challenges experiencing this wonderful state can bring. Issues like difficulty transitioning to other activities, possible neglect of basic needs, social isolation, and the risk of overstimulation and burnout mean flow states should be balanced with the need to attend to life's responsibilities so they don't diminish quality of life overall. Too much of anything is a bad thing!


By balancing the experience of this wonderful state of being with the need to attend to daily responsibilities, autistic individuals can maximize the benefits while minimizing the downsides, and live their best life!


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