What the fidget?

What the fidget?

Fidget spinners. They’re driving teachers nuts. Are they a help or hazard? This is the current debate.

Until about December 2016, these little spinning gadgets were virtually unheard of. Now, they’ve exploded onto the market (worldwide), with many loud opinions. There is a growing chorus of voices making news headlines urging parents to ‘refrain from purchasing these devices’ and chanting numerous reasons why they are a hazard for children, in particular.

Negative opinions range from choking hazards to distractions in the classroom, as well as whether they are actually beneficial as therapeutic tools for managing sensory processing problems. One by one, many schools around the world are banning these devices, effectively disallowing children the opportunity for distraction during school hours. And parents of children in ongoing therapy are also asking questions – Are fidget spinners a useful tool for therapy? Or are they really just annoying toys? What is their purpose? Are they really all that bad? After all, it’s just a small, ball-bearing device that can be rotated between a person’s fingers and fits in the palm of their hand …

The hype

Where did all the hype suddenly come from? The idea behind the current consumer product is not a brand new one. The original idea was actually conceptualised years ago.

During the early 1990s, in the suburban city of Winter Park (Orange Country, Florida, USA), Catherine Hettinger had an idea which related to the medical condition she suffers from. She has a disorder known as myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular condition that causes skeletal muscle weakness. Signals in the brain malfunction and don’t assist muscles in the body effectively. This results in motor problems. A person can have trouble moving their own limbs and hands.

“I couldn’t pick up my daughter’s toys and I couldn’t play with her,” Hettinger says.

The frustration the disorder caused and the effects on her home-life prompted Hettinger to find a way to ‘fix’ the situation in some capacity. Mother and young daughter came up with a simple device that both had the physical capability to use and play with together.

The pair looked within their own home and toyed with various objects, including crumpled up newspapers. Ultimately, they settled on a small plastic disc that could be spun around on the tip of a finger. For their purposes, the toys proved effective. In 1993, Hettinger filed for a patent of the toy and began making others for sale at local craft fairs. Hettinger took things a step further and approached various companies with her toy idea. During the process of pitching her idea, she found herself actively playing with it, and realised that it settled her nerves, effectively calming her down.

No company seemingly got excited about the idea, however. Eventually the patent period for the toy lapsed, but Hettinger still produced spinners for sale at craft fairs and online. The idea of little finger spinners was effectively ‘out there’ and gradually started to get some attention. Others became exposed to the idea and began adapting the basic design in an effort to make them available to the broader public as consumer products.

What Hettinger developed and that which is currently flying off the shelves today are not the same design. The original toy resembles a flying saucer or sun hat which can be balanced on a person’s finger for spinning purposes. The designs currently being marketed have three arms and use tiny ball bearings to spin. These devices spin for longer than the original concept toy did. The size and shape of the original concept has changed quite considerably.

People have developed multiple interests in these little gadgets – some purchase them as little collector toys in various shapes and sizes, but others have latched onto a more functional purpose, one which Hettinger hinted at during her days of pitching… possible therapy. The newsworthy hype, however has centred around children and, in particular, the use of the toys in the classroom.

Teenager spinning a fidget spinner device on finger.

The upside

Fidget spinners have been linked to medical conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and anxiety. The reason? In simple terms, the sensory experience of a spinning object provides a pleasing, calming and relaxing experience for the user. Fidget spinners have been picked up in the occupational therapy area of expertise and many have noted that they appear to serve as an effective antidote in the treatment of all disorders – on a small scale.

Many spinners have thus begun to capitalise on the marketing capabilities of this and actively advertise the products as aides for those with these disorders, which are said to promote better levels of concentration and alleviate feelings of anxiety and restlessness. Of course, the marketing language used is far more colourful and prompts buyers to ‘bring out the creative genius’ in their children.

Promoting fidgeting, which stimulates the brain, is useful in occupational therapy and is one of the possible benefits of these devices. Something therapy has focussed on in disorder treatment is the action of fidgeting. Therapists already make use of the general concept of these devices as part of their box of tools for treatment. Often, these tools are referred to as ‘sensory manipulatives’ and consist of stretchy putty, squishy balls, smooth stones to rub or necklaces and bracelets to chew on.

All of these are effectively simple objects or 'fidgets' that function according to specific repetitive movement. The aim? Fidgets are usually used to stimulate the senses and in so doing either encourage a person to focus and become alert or calm down exaggerated emotions.

Repetitive movement and touch that is simple and subtle can help to keep the mind attentive and calm the body. The ‘fidget to focus’ approach in occupational therapy and psychology ultimately assists a person with a disorder or disability learn how to live independently and perform daily tasks themselves, among various other things. Often, it targets a specific habit. Sometimes people adopt certain behaviours to fulfil a need through touch, and can become distracting to others. Sensory manipulative tools can be something as simple as a stress ball and effectively control constant and impulsive movements.

In the case of a person with ADHD, impulsive movement and constant activity is better controlled with sensory manipulative tools. Fidgeting can improve a person’s ability to focus and pay attention. Anyone with a sensory-processing problem can make use of tactile objects in their therapy – both in session and in the home.

Fidget spinners are attracting as many adults as they are children. Stress, anxiety and problems with being able to focus are becoming increasingly common. It has been shown in small-scale studies that ADHD sufferers appear to perform better when able to participate in gross motor activity (moving large portions of their body, such as the limbs). Many receiving treatment for ADHD will be encouraged to exercise for this reason.

Studies haven’t yet been done with the specific use of fidget spinners, but some experts can see the logic and how it applies to treatment. Others don’t really see the point – there isn’t enough body movement happening when such a small device is being used by a patient with ADHD. Thus, it’s just a toy. To use a fidget spinner, gross body movement is not required. For an ADHD sufferer, this is what is needed to target the frontal and pre-frontal areas in the brain and help to sustain an attention span.

Fidget spinners are more visually stimulating, holding a person’s attention that way. Without any real studies, it’s difficult to link the device with any real medical benefit at this time. There may be some benefit, but it’s definitely not regarded as a medically approved cure for the treatment of any disorder. Not every individual may find it beneficial either.

Those that do see some benefit view a fidget spinner as one aspect of a greater treatment plan. It is intended as a therapy tool that is carefully integrated into a person’s daily life or routine. The spinning action can be ‘assigned’ a specific purpose and practice may be encouraged until the reason for the fidget tool is satisfied. Whatever the tool used, be it a fidget spinner or even a stress ball, it must best suit a specific need and form part of a much larger treatment plan, which is likely to include other forms of therapy and medication.

The downside

As with many discussions around medically-related studies, findings and opinions exist like that of a double-sided coin. Where there are benefits, questions are raised, and sometimes disagreement ensues. Often, disagreement comes down to a difference in perspectives.

One such perspective is the highly publicised issue of ‘distraction’. Where one group of experts agree that fidget spinners may be distractive in a healthy way (with benefits of movement), to some degree, for those with disorders such as ADHD, autism and anxiety, others feel the design of the product is more of a negative distraction in the classroom and counteracts any benefit for both disorder sufferers and the curious eyeballs of the generally healthy.

Fidget spinner and fidget cubes.Some Psychologists have voiced that other tools, such as a fidget-cube, already available for similar purposes, are better to use in treatment programmes, providing less negative forms of distraction. The reason? These tools don’t require visual attention, making them more classroom-friendly.

Distraction, on the negative end of opinion, relates to the device being used for entertainment purposes. Children are happily playing away with this silent device and teaching one another new tricks. Some are even trying to balance theirs on their noses to increase difficulty levels of play. The simple nature of the device invites challenge for young minds, and seemingly adults too. Accessible to almost anyone, fidget spinners are available in an array of colours and sizes, which adds to the appeal.

Some children and parents support the flipside of the coin, agreeing that the device has the positive effect of alleviating negative situations caused by boredom, anxiety, worry and stress.

There are experts who agree that although certain sensory needs can achieve some level of benefit, the way in which the product has been designed is possibly more problematic in that it may be making it more difficult for children, in particular, to actually focus. Whether healthy or being treated for a disorder such as ADHD, fidget spinners can be negatively distracting. For an ADHD child, seeing another playing with one will almost certainly attract all of their attention as well. In the classroom, this does not make for productive learning.

The media hype around distraction, in particular, revolves around new difficulties in getting children to concentrate in the classroom. Fidget spinners have been seen to be distracting children away from learning, prompting them to favour ‘tuning out’ and entertaining themselves instead. Those with ADHD have also been noted as being distracting, which comes back to the point of gross body movement. A fidget spinner just makes use of a few fingers, leaving little effect in helping symptoms of a disorder. It’s visually pleasing on one hand, and satisfying in the sense that the spinning movement can be relaxing, alleviating restlessness.

It doesn’t, however, encourage much movement at all, and children, whether being treated for sensory problems or not, need to be active. Those with sensory problems, especially, need movement – they must be encouraged to stand, walk and move around. Relieving a little boredom with a device such as a spinner should never take the place of proper activity, which allows a person to properly use their senses.

Experts in the field of sensory treatment are fast being joined by parents in questioning the effectiveness of allowing children a fidget spinner. Distraction is one reason, where it is being noticed that children find the device 'addictive' in terms of concentration. These flat, spinning devices can be quite consuming when it comes to a child’s ability to focus on anything else. This applies to all children, not just those using the device for treatment purposes. Every child now wants one, and being such a small device, is it really all that harmful? If the problem is just ‘distraction’, like most other things that pertain to children and their behaviour, don’t they simply just need rules and boundaries for the use of a spinner?

Many reports of late have sparked a little fear about allowing children a fidget spinner, with or without a sensory processing disorder. Why? One thing most children have in common is the compulsion to put things in their mouth. Any small object can and often does end up in the mouths of young children, in particular. There have been numerous reports from emergency rooms around the world stating that children have been attended to following choking incidents. One child, a 10-year-old girl, even required surgery to remove a small part lodged inside her little body.

As many as 200 000 fidget spinners are known to have been recalled recently because they have come apart with use, and little children have been swallowing the small parts. This has prompted many a news report warning parents ‘against the dangers of fidget spinners’. In the USA, The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently issued a warning to parents in the country, stating that children should be discouraged from using the device as a result of numerous choking incidents.

Another noted problem relates to those who are using the devices for treatment purposes. Children with a disorder not only deal with their own set of difficulties, but also how those challenges are perceived by others around them. A child is very sensitive to ‘being different’ from others. They may use other fidget tools that are approved by schools in the classroom. These tools aren’t used by all children, effectively making a child ‘stand out’ as different.

Sensory stimulating behaviours, such as jumping, spinning around or flapping hands, are part of treatment programmes that help to calm anxiety in autistic children. The use of a fidget spinner as a replacement tool for these behaviours may be less stigmatising for an autistic child, but the device can hinder learning capabilities in the classroom. This poses a dilemma for parents. Should fidget spinners be seen only as toys, and rather used as a play reward for good behaviour?

If access to a fidget spinners is used as a play reward, it may help to reinforce good behaviours and boundaries. In this way, children are not distracted when it is necessary to learn and adopt appropriate behaviours. Those who can benefit from fidgeting merely need other methods that enable them to be productive without becoming a distraction. Methods that focus on serving the need for touch without a visual requirement can be as simple as allowing the chewing of gum, which provides enough non-specific motor activity for focussing attention, without causing any interference.

Are fidget spinners more of a help or a hindrance?

The problem may lie in how the product has become accessible for all. These devices are being marketed as toys, with some even going as far as to say they are useful tools for sensory processing disorders. Children around the world now wish to own one for play purposes.

Fidget tools are part of a broader treatment plan for those dealing with sensory processing problems. They function as one small component of several other treatment factors, and on their own, do not serve as a cure for any disorder.

Being a relatively new device, fidget spinners in terms of the market, are desired more for play than treatment, and as such have shown to be more of a hindrance, especially in the classroom, prompting teachers to ban them. Many occupational therapists and psychologists are in agreement with this, some even banning the devices from their place of practice too, if they cannot find a beneficial way of integrating them into treatment.

There’s no doubt that these little devices are gripping the attention spans of both children and adults alike. Play is an essential part of human creativity – for children and adults too. Videos are surfacing all over the internet showcasing spinning tricks that challenge a user’s ability in varying degrees of difficulty. If used creatively, these devices can be fun and surely keep individuals occupied in healthier ways (i.e. keeping children out of trouble and unhealthy habits), stimulating young minds.

The fine line should perhaps be drawn when it comes to unhealthy distraction and ensuring that no spinner is used by a child without constant supervision. The small parts of the device design have shown to be a potential choking hazard, and have resulted in serious medical concerns.

Parents interested in the devices for treatment purposes should be aware that spinners have not been specifically used in extensive medical studies and thus, cannot be assumed as a tool for therapy with great confidence as yet. There have been whispers amongst the loud voices discouraging use of this device, that perhaps it can have some stimulating and creative benefit for those learning to cope with sensory problems associated with disorders such as ADHD, autism and even anxiety.

Small-scale studies have shown that children with ADHD have the ability to focus a lot better when allowed to fidget. Fidgeting encourages the brain to work a little harder to focus on one specific task at a time. Thus, fidgeting can help a child to focus. Fidget spinners, however, are designed and marketed more as toys. They’re light-weight, easy to play with and very colourful. The appeal encourages more play that requires visual attention.

Can a fidget spinner help a person with a sensory processing disorder?

For a person with ADHD, fidgeting is not necessarily something that is discouraged. By busying the hands with something else, using simple movements like tapping a pen, the brain is forced to focus on the task. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain effectively works a bit like an ‘office manager’, helping a person with ADHD to better organise information and learn to focus. The brain, in simple terms, has to work harder to focus, enforcing more effort not to get distracted.

Not all ADHD sufferers are hyperactive. Thus, not all those with the disorder may benefit from using a fidget spinner. Those who are hyperactive tend to have excess energy. A spinner may give them an outlet to tend to their need to fidget and gain focus, but may not be useful as a replacement for any area of their overall treatment.

When it comes to someone with a sensory processing disorder, the downside of using a spinner is possibly more in distracting others than it is a hindrance for the user.

What should parents take into consideration?

Psychologists and therapists alike, who have studied the benefits of movement on attention at great length, have already developed tools that have shown improvement in their treatment programmes.

One such tool is known as a ‘fidget cube’. A plastic cube with buttons is useful for fidgeting hands without the need for visual attention (as is required for the use of a fidget spinner). This is perhaps a better tool for those receiving treatment for sensory processing disorders. It is also less distracting – for the user and those around them. There is no need for visual attention, but can serve a similar purpose as spinners.

Until such time as anything can be appropriately proved by science, it is perhaps best to use these devices in controlled settings that enable an individual, particularly a child, more benefit of creative play and less opportunity for hazard or distraction.

Parents of children with sensory processing disorders should consult their treatment care team for appropriate advice. If spinners can be beneficial, a therapist will ensure to integrate it into treatment appropriately. If not, they may be discouraged altogether.

There is plenty of debate at present, so it may be safe to say that time will tell if these devices can be effectively used for medical purposes or not. Experts appear interested enough to explore the idea. There may already be a study in the works. Watch this space …