You’ve probably noticed the huge fidget spinner trend sweeping the nation. While they have definitely taken off in the special needs community, they’ve also grown in mainstream popularity. I personally love fidgets. I’m the type who pays attention best while doodling or tearing apart the sleeve of my sweater. So, what’s the deal with fidgets? And, could they help your child with autism, ADHD, or Sensory Processing Disorder?
Why Fidgeting is Important
We’ve all heard that multitasking is an inefficient way to get work done. Forcing the brain to jump between tasks leads to overload and an inability to focus on anything, let alone multiple tasks at once. However, there are certain tasks that our brains can do with little power or effort. Chewing gum, walking, clicking a pen, tapping our fingers, or swinging our feet can be done with little conscious thought. In fact, this type of multitasking is actually beneficial for our abilities to focus.
A child with ADHD or certain types of sensory issues often struggles to sit still. This can cause trouble in the classroom, as both the teacher and child attempt to find strategies for paying attention to the assignment or lecture at hand. This is where mindless multitasking comes in.
Engaging multiple senses can help with focus and attention. This type of multitasking includes pairing a primary task with a mindless activity that engages a different part of the brain.
Examples include listening to music while writing an essay, drawing while listening to a lecture, or spinning a fidget while doing math homework. Instead of being distracting, adding this mindless activity engages the brain enough to be able to better pay attention to the primary task. In a study done with 6th graders, it was found that the simple use of stress balls during school instruction lead to fewer classroom distractions and improved academic performance. In the spirit of Occupational Therapy, it is often simple solutions that lead to big results.
Read more about sensory processing in my post about sensory processing disorder and how it works.
Criticism of Fidgets
Fidgets are not without their critics. Rightly so, people warn that fidgets do not always produce the results that are promised. This is true. Every child is different and something that works for one child may not work for the other. While one child may want a hand held fidget spinner, another may need a chair foot bouncer or a set of headphones that plays a specific genre of music. No, fidget spinners do not work for everyone, but they do for some.
In addition, critics talk about how fidgets don’t “cure” ADHD. Well, my response to this is that of course they don’t. The goal of incorporating fidgets into a child’s life isn’t to “cure” ADHD. The goal is to develop a toolbox of techniques, strategies, and resources that make life easier and more manageable. For some, fidgets are an important tool in the toolbox.
Not to be undervalued is a fidget’s flashiness. While a fidget may do a great job of keeping your child focused, it may distract other children in the classroom. Be sure to talk with your child’s teacher prior to implementing a fidget into your child’s school routine. If a fidget is going to disrupt the classroom environment, another method may need to be found.
My 5 Favorite Fidgets
There are more fidgets than there are spines on a porcupine so, this is a very small selection of all that’s out there. These are my personal favorite fidgets, but you have to go with whatever will work for your child.
Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty
Putty is a great choice given that you can shape it into a sea monster or smash it into a pancake. This is one fidget with endless possibilities.
For any sensory sensitive kiddos, putty isn’t a great choice as a fidget. As a form of therapy, yes, but not as a mindless fidget.
The great thing about putty is that it provides an extra layer of entertainment that spinners can’t. On good days, your kid may be content simply squishing the putty. But, on hard days, your kids may need to shape it into a sculpture in order to focus and stay calm.
There’s something amazingly satisfying about Squishies. They’re soft and fluffy, while also being gooey and squishy. I know, that sounds confusing. Even when you’ve tried it, it’s still confusing!
I don’t know where these magic Squishies came from, but all I care about is how darn relaxing they are. I need a pile of Squishies to help me combat the frustration that comes from rush hour traffic and long grocery lines.
If your kiddo needs something simple to keep their hands occupied, Squishies could be a great choice.
Why get a separate fidget, when your kiddo’s pencil can be a great fidget? This fidget is great for any brains that are always moving a mile a minute and need to divert some of that energy elsewhere.
This fidget can be great for the classroom, as it’s one of the more discrete out of the bunch. The only downside is that your kiddo can’t use it while they’re writing. So, if your child needs a fidget while they are writing or doing their homework, you may need to invest in an additional one.
These tangles are designed for relaxation. There’s something about the way the coils feel when they move around to create new shapes that puts the mind at ease.
Tangles have an amazing ability to make you feel successful without a purpose. In your head, you know that you’re not forming any particular shape, yet it feels so good to swivel and twist the coils into endless variations.
This fidget can really only be used with two hands, so it’s not a great choice as an accompaniment to writing or homework time.
When you have a kid that needs something new and exciting every second, this fidget cube is a great choice. Bored? Simply turn the cube and busy your hands with something new!
The fidget cube is nearly a home run for every fidget lover, as it offers so many options.
And, if you just can’t decide what fidget to get, why not buy a pack and give a number of them a try!
Fidgets may have been a fad, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help our kiddos that need to keep their hands busy in order to concentrate.
If you’re looking for more sensory tools, check out my post on the 43 best sensory and learning toys for kids with autism and SPD.
Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.