Maintaining Attention

I’ve just read a text on attention as it is something that for me, at work, is a real issue.

I’ve always found sustained attention hard. Of course, it is particularly difficult as someone with Asperger syndrome (AS) when the subject matter is of limited interest, but that will always be the case in most employment scenarios.

According to the commentator Paschler, “attention has long posed a major challenge for psychologists” and is defined as selectivity of processing. This struck me somewhat because it seems to be saying is that other people practice basically what I do: they choose to pay attention largely to what they want to only.

I remember my ex-boss at the BBC saying to me once that “everyone loses concentration in meetings, but you seem to do more than most”. What he was saying was that, though other people seem to lose track for a while, they don’t, unlike me, seem to lose the overall thread and are able to remember the main thrust of the dialogue and key facts and information.

So why as a person with Asperger do I struggle more than others?

The text talks about the concentration of consciousness which is controlled by attentional mechanisms. This is where I think my Asperger first comes into effect! A common trait – and one that I certainly have – is a tendency to drift away from discussions mentally when it moves away from what is directly relevant to me.

In a meeting for example, I will my piece and then withdraw cognitively when the debate moves onto an area which I believe will not impact on my area of operation. Bringing myself back to the here and now can then become difficult, especially so if a meeting is long and prolonged periods of attention are required.

Active attention is known as “top down” processing which relates to an individual’s goals or what is relevant and of interest to them. This is what I can effectively practice. Passive attention is controlled by external stimuli and is harder for everyone. The reason for this is because it requires processing effort to decide which stimulus is the most relevant to the current goal. In other words, if there are numerous agendas, discussions and information being passed around a meeting, there is only so much that one can attend to and retain.

From an Asperger perspective this represents, I think, two particular problems. Firstly, cognitive “fuel” for the want of a better word, is more limited. I find concentration and concentrated thinking for prolonged periods quite difficult and; secondly, which stimulus is relevant depends on what I classify as relevant! Because my cognitive capacity is limited I try to only retain a finite amount.

This point leads on to focused and divided attention. The former involves dealing with one stimulus when two are present; the latter when both need to be attended to at the same time. Divided attention is the result processing limitations, attentional mechanisms and related (cognitive) capacity.

I certainly find divided attention more challenging. Because I need to focus on one thing at a time I find switching between tasks disrupts my thinking and productivity. In other words, I can only practice focused attention. Once I leave a task (to address another – divided attention), I find it harder to go back to it and, perhaps, the one thing that affects my productivity more than anything is a tendency is to put things to one side until there is an urgency and not complete until there is a reason that forces me to do so.

This is where the answer maybe lies. According to the book the individual themselves’ must “decide” whether to engage in focused or divided attention. The use of either is determined by goal driven or top down attentional processes.

What we attend to in the real world is largely determined by our current goals and so we generally attend to those people and objects that interest us before selecting actions that are suitable in relation to them.

What relates to someone with Asperger syndrome is what is prevalent and relevant to “their world”. At work of course, this is not a luxury that one can afford. What goes on around you impacts both directly and indirectly; consciously and sub-consciously. There is a need, therefore, to develop skills and methods that ensure attendance to issues emanating from the “entire world”. For me this means taking the view that everything in – say – a meeting that I am required to be part of is of relevance to me.

Cherry then looked at auditory information. As mentioned, as someone with AS, I believe that I am a “visual learner”; I process and retain information and data most effectively when it is presented in written or spatial form. Of course, at work a lot of information circulates in verbal form.

According to Cherry, unattended auditory information receives practically no processing. The reason for this is because people have no conscious awareness of its meaning.

From an AS perspective I think that this is likely to be exacerbated by having to deal with subject matter that is of little interest or (perceived) direct relevance. In other words I don’t listen to it.

I suspect that most of my colleagues will acknowledge and understand the importance of discourse around the edges of any conversation and consider its relevance to them. It is this that – perhaps – I am not.

A possible solution to this is “active listening”. I have made concerted efforts to truly listen and improve my listening skills as someone with AS, as I have, over time, come to realise that this is the source of a number of other difficulties: weaker inter-personal relationships, missing information etc. If I am truly listening then I must be process all information in an auditory way.

The possible non-acknowledgement or retention of information according to Deutsch & Deutsch can go one stage further. They assert that only important inputs will lead to responses from a third-party and the key factor in paying attention to, and receiving them, are “targets”.

“Targets” are pieces of information that are important to the person on the receiving end and which they are consequently receptive to. This got me thinking. I can be in a conversation with someone where the subject matter is seemingly largely irrelevant to me. But then, something is mentioned which I recognise and then brings the conversation to life and makes it relevant!

I have found if I can increase my knowledge and understanding of the wider subject matter I work within, this greatly enhances my “targets” and, hence, my attention levels. The reason for this is because I have made the data relevant to me.

To give an example: I am currently working in the area of computer games which are developed using quite complicated technical methodologies. For me to sell (my responsibility) the games, I need to understand the capability and the processes that produce them.

I have never been technically literate. Whilst at school for example, I remember my physics teacher telling me that I would never excel at the subject because I could not conceptualise the fact that all objects consist of tiny particles called molecules that were dynamic.

My boss also picked up on this principle. He subsequently provided me with a paper which explains the development process in detail. Slowly but surely I am beginning to understand it and get a grasp of the overall concept.

Consequently, when a subject – or “target” – is mentioned in a meeting now I don’t just recognise the word, but I can apply an underlying meaning! This means that my attention remains in place and it enables me to contribute meaningfully to the debate. It also has wider benefits such as increasing my standing with (technical) work colleagues – which was always a criticism emanating from them.

Johnston & Heinz then make a point which has enabled me to identify a technique that can really augment my attention. According to them, selection – or attention – towards an object or issue occurs very early in any situation or discourse to minimise demands on cognitive capacity.

They found that when attention is divided inappropriate “non-targets” impair performance as they are processed for semantic meaning. In other words, if something is not understood then time and mental resource is expended trying to understand what it means and how it could possibly relate to something.

In the example cited previously about understanding the technical development process of a computer game, this can become a real issue for me. It distracts my attention and concentration as I try to locate a meaning so I often lose the thread of the discussion. It can also lead to other difficulties such as making inappropriate comments to what is under discussion. This, at times, has led me to be misunderstood by colleagues – and, perhaps, even slightly strange!

The best way I have found to mitigate this is to either ask, or, write the relevant word or information down and not try and attend to it at that moment to maintain attention to the ongoing dialogue.

There is also another outcome related to this that I am highly susceptible to. Very early on when receiving an auditory message, I always invariably believe I have got the point, assimilated the forthcoming message and so interrupt the other person before they have finished and got what they fully want to say across. For the other person this can cause great frustration.

As part of my personal development programme I have tried to force myself to stop, wait, really listen ….. and maintain my attention towards the other person. This gives me more time to assimilate the message providing I am patient.

I have also augmented this with other actions to mitigate the effects of my AS: acknowledging a third-party non-verbally, i.e. nodding gently for example, and repeating back to them what they have said for clarification. If the message is long, I ask if I can write it down!

The final piece of research referred to in the paper was conducted by Treisman. He suggested that attention passes through a hierarchy starting with physical cues, specific words and finally through to meaning. If there is insufficient processing capacity to fulfil this process, then activity at the top of the hierarchy – physical cues – are not attended to.

I wondered if this referred to omission of the visual images so important to the visual/spatial processing preference of someone with AS?

What I have learnt with regard to attention and having Asperger syndrome in the workplace is that it is hard, difficult, essential but possible to achieve.

Listening to others… really listening is a critical element, learning about wider issues that impact on what I do to increase my understanding and, therefore, innate receptiveness is important also.

However, what is most vital is focus and concentrated effort. When I commence a dialogue with someone or I’m about to enter a meeting, I consciously make the point internally that that is where my focus and concentration will only lie for its duration. If I start to drift during it……………. I force myself to refocus and come back.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome