They’re the hottest thing around, said to reduce stress and help those with autism and ADHD relieve anxiety and stay focused. Fidget spinners are also promoted as tools to help those with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental conditions. But do fidget spinners live up to the hype? Or, is the fidget spinner craze simply the latest fad that will barely be remembered this time next year?
What is a Fidget Spinner?
Fidget spinners are hand-held toys that look a bit like the top of an electric shaver. Users hold the spinner between their fingers and spin. A satisfying whir sound occurs as the toy spins away, kind of like the spinning tops of old. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So why the controversy?
Before the Fidget Spinner
Fidgeting is a human activity. If you’ve ever bent a paperclip out of shape during a meeting, doodled on a pad when you’re supposed to be working, rapidly moved your foot back and forth, played with your hair, popped Bubble Wrap or bitten the end of your writing pen, you’ve fidgeted. If you’re human, you’ve fidgeted. Fidget spinners aren’t the first invention designed to relieve stress and turn fidgeting into a positive activity.
One of the most common stress relief gadgets that’s been around for a long time is the stress ball. Stress balls are widely used by people who work in offices because they are small and easily fit in a desk drawer. The balls are made of soft clay or gel material. Squeezing and relaxing the ball in your hand releases tension, works your hand and arm muscles, stimulates nerves and diverts focus. Studies have shown an adult’s brain releases endorphins while using a stress ball which then improves overall mood.
Other stress relievers on the market long before fidget spinners include twistable tubs, desk sculpting toys and more recently, colouring books for adults. Another product that’s been on the market designed for children with ADHD, autism and high anxiety levels is the Monkey Fidgetz. The toy consists of eight strips of bpa-free plastic, each strip containing a marble. Manipulating the marble inside the strip provides a pleasing and calming tactile experience. But none of these products became as popular as quickly or caused such a firestorm of controversy as the fidget spinner.
Why Kids and Adults Love Fidget Spinners
In mid-May of this year, every single toy on Amazon’s top 10 best-seller list was some form of the fidget spinner. Parents and kids are crafting their own at home, some handcrafting and others using 3D printers. And, people are having fun. You can find numerous YouTube videos that show people doing all kinds of tricks and amazing feats with fidget spinners.
OK, spinners are fun. But, what about the psychological aspects? Do spinners really help people focus? In short, if you’re asking about adults in a work environment, the answer is yes.
Psychological studies indicate that adults seek to adjust their environment to the stimulation levels that works best for them. Everyone is different. The right amount of stimulation for one person is probably not the right level for the person in the next cubicle. Adequate stimulation varies periodically within individuals as well, depending on the task at hand.
Fidget spinners and other anxiety and stress reducing devices work on an individual level. So, if the question is whether spinners help working adults, the answer is yes.
What about kids? And what about those specifically mentioned as benefiting, such as children with autism and ADHD? The answer to these questions is more complicated.
Fidget Spinners: The Real Deal?
Organisations such as Sanjay Shah’s Autism Rocks and the National Autistic Society work hard to get the word out about autism, fund research, raise awareness and provide outreach for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families. The problem that autism spectrum and other mental health organisations have is that there is little to no research to indicate the effectiveness of fidget spinners on children with autism.
There are anecdotal accounts that spinners and other fidget toys relieve anxiety in children and help them stay focused. The closest type of study was done in 2006. Sixth-grade students were given stress balls to use during independent study and direct study sessions. Researchers found that when stress balls were used, attention spans increased and writing skills improved. The students themselves believed stress balls improved their attitude and focus. It’s a promising, if not decisive, finding.
National Autistic Society Centre for Autism director Carol Povey believes fidget spinners off benefits for those on the autism spectrum. Povey explains, “Autistic children have a different way of experiencing the world around them. Many find it difficult to focus … having something that spins or twists can help to ground and balance them.” Povey admits that there is little research about how spinners work, but she believes anecdotally they do.
However, there are detractors. Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida director Mark Rapport believes the spinner-like gadget is a distraction rather than a benefit for ADHD children. And herein lies the debate.
What’s the Big Deal?
The fidget spinner seems harmless, even if it doesn’t do exactly what it purports, so why is it being banned in schools across the UK and the U.S.? Because fidget spinners are causing the very problem they seek to relieve. And that’s distractions in the classroom.
The BBC interviewed a primary school teacher who pointed out that fidget spinners are included in the school’s budget but only for those children identified by specialists as requiring them. Unfortunately, because everyone has a fidget spinner these days, children who don’t need them to relieve anxiety and achieve better focus bring them to school and cause widespread distractions. Banning these students from bringing them to school has, so far, been the solution.
And, the Answer Is…
The jury is still out about the overall effectiveness of fidget spinners. Further research is required before there are definitive answers. In all probability, spinners will work well for some on the autism spectrum and ADHD sufferers and not so well for others. Individuals have their own personalities, sets of skills and challenges and each requires a different avenue to cope.