Fidgeting with Widgets (and Other Distractions)

Hey all!

Well, look at that, I have a couple of free Fridays. And I bought a fidget spinner.

There’s been this whole Thing about fidget spinners ever since the craze started a couple of months ago; I don’t pay all that much attention to fads, so the first I heard of it was when my friend posted something vilifying the authorities for banning them in schools. Then suddenly it’s like BAM: they’re everywhere. Schools are getting them banned because they’re a distraction for the kids, I see people cracking them out on the street, on the train, they’re in shops for anything from a fiver to twenty quid…marketed as a stimming and a focal aid all in one.

It’s a genius idea, but I was sceptical at first, I’ll freely admit. I stim a lot. I run my nails over my hands in regular, prescribed patterns that I’ve been using since I was about five. If I’m not doing that, I’m picking at my nails or picking at my acne. Always listening to music; I need background noise when I’m working or cleaning up. I require a lot of sensory stimulation, which is something I’ve come to accept. I am a consummate fidget, and my initial thought was, ‘Just spinning something around in my fingers is not going to be enough.’

So, I bought one. No harm, no foul, right?

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I was half right; in many ways, it’s not enough. I think the acne-picking is a stress-relieving compulsion rather than a habit – one I’ll have to deal with some day when I have the time and inclination. I still scratch my fingers, my arms. But, my nails look better than they have in a very long time, and I’m having a go at retraining myself. If I feel the need to scratch, or pick at my nails or whatever else, I spin for a bit. And as a focus aid…well, I forgot I was spinning it during a lab meeting today, and as someone who constantly suffers from wandering thoughts, I can say with some certainty that it definitely helps there.

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So I got curious and did a bit of digging around. According to experts, there is no scientific evidence that they aid focus for children with ADHD and autism. There was a nice article on LiveScience about attention spans in kids, both neurotypical and neuroatypical; so, there have been plenty of studies on attention, but almost none focusing on fidget spinners and their ilk, which have been around for a while. In my opinion, the spinners haven’t been out for long enough to really gauge how honestly useful they are in improving attention in children. So, I think saying ‘there’s no scientific evidence and there never will be’ is jumping the gun a bit. There’s some evidence out there that fidget toys can be useful in reducing anxious habits like skin picking as part of a wider therapy; they are, however, woefully understudied in clinical, domestic and educational contexts as a specific aid.

Then there’s the matter of design. I have a metal one; my boyfriend took one look at it, found a stray bit of metal (not sharp) hanging off it, and wrote them off as not worth the money. Bit premature, I though, but considering the thing was half price (down from £10), it may be a fair point. Customs at Frankfurt Airport in Germany are having to destroy 35 tonnes of ‘unsafe’ spinners imported from China, as the LEDs embedded were embedded so poorly that they were a choking hazard. I imagine when they fall apart, they do so spectacularly and at high speeds.

They have their downsides, there’s no doubt about that.

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Anecdotally, and in practice, though, they seem to be working out. Fidget toys and other sensory aids are used extensively with children, in clinical and domestic situations respectively. There’s some concern about how schools banning fidget spinners might negatively impacts the learning – and indeed, the social – experience of neuroatypical children, one person’s focus aid/stim is another person’s distraction. This blog post from AustismAwareness.com sums it up very nicely. There’s also evidence to suggest the stimming IS the focus tactic for people with autism (which unfortunately I haven’t got the link for); does it then matter what the stim is? And it begs the question; if they are so widespread, why do they seem so understudied?

I like my spinner, and I like that it lets me fidget without looking overly weird (not that that’s ever mattered much to me). I think the major problem is that people have is the anti-social nature of fidgeting. I fidget to focus and someone else finds it distracting. Where did we get this idea that fidgeting was something to be avoided? I can’t imagine what it would be like not the be a fidget, and I’ve never quite comprehended how people sit still. I think then expecting me to sit still to ease the experience for everyone else is asking a bit much.

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What I would say to schools and other institutions looking to ban them is; think about who you’re impacting. Yes, some kids in class would benefit from having them remove, but also think about your friendly neighbourhood neuroatypical who may be relying on the hum or the vibrations of the spinner in their hand to pay attention to what their teacher saying. This is why special needs measures are supposed to exist; don’t screw over a child’s education for the sake of the majority. And to the experts; run some proper, scientific experiments on specifically fidget spinners, or just fidget aids in general; don’t assume something won’t work simply because there’s no basis for it.

Stay awesome, everyone. And happy stimming!

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Pink Metallic Fidget Spinner picture is mine, ask before you reuse please.

Leave My Diagnosis Alone

I mean here’s the thing about the proposed reduction of autism diagnoses; it’s bullshit. Here’s the other thing; they’ve already done it.

Okay, allow me to explain; the UK NHS rolled out an idea the other week to reduce the number of autism diagnoses to only the most severe cases, which I only didn’t mention last week because I’m also grappling with one of my not-as-infrequent-as-I-would-like low mood episodes, brought on mostly by stuff outside my control. They’re citing stuff like ‘waiting times for diagnosis’ and ‘allocation of resources’ but the point is, it’s quite severely damaging for people like me and my peers who barely make the cut as it is, and have to fight for every additional resource we need because we have all the effects, but on paper we don’t qualify.

The problem I have, in all the outcry over this, is, in a lot of ways, it’s already happened.

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Allow me to explain further; clinically speaking (and drawing heavily on my lectures here), autistic spectrum disorders are split into four syndromes:

These are diagnosed by the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, published by the APA and is used worldwide for the diagnosis of psychiatric and developmental disorders. It’s also the research criteria used by academics and researchers, but that’s beside the point.

The most recent DSM – DSM-5, the fifth edition released in 2013 – made several revisions to autism and autism diagnoses; namely, the removal of Aspergers and PDD NOS to be replaced by the umbrella term of ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder.’ They’ve also tightened the criteria, in the name of making diagnostics fairer and more valid. What they don’t realise, as the ARI article points out, and that the NAS point out in the BBC article, is that this runs the risk of us ‘high functioning’ lot getting left out in the cold. Just because we have higher IQ’s and are better able to learn how to socially function, doesn’t mean we don’t need resources; extra tuition, more time in exams, specialist equipment. It’s tough enough getting that help, and without that all important piece of paper telling the Powers That Be that we are entitled to them, we’re not getting squat.

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Under the rules, I have never qualified for an official diagnosis of Asperger’s, despite showing all the classic traits, and it was like a kick in the gut when my lecturer, quite calmly, explained that a part of my identity no longer existed, consumed by an umbrella term that doesn’t necessarily describe me the same way as ‘dyspraxic Aspie’ does. What might happen within the NHS is far, far more drastic a shift and if that happens, hundreds of thousands of people like me face the same kick, but from the system that’s supposed to care for them, not throw them away. I love the NHS, but sometimes it can be a bit bloody stupid.

I’ve lived with this ‘borderline’ thing for 23 years, and I’m used to it. There are people out there who have never been diagnosed, and now, under these DSM-5 revisions, might never be. And under the new NHS plans, still more people could lose out. That cannot and should not happen.

Hopefully it doesn’t happen – the NHS plans are only plans right now – but the things rolling around in the news these days, like dementia taxes and the US President pulling out of the Paris Agreement (aka. the biggest and most comprehensive climate change deal ever), I’ve rather lost faith in the abilities of the people leading us to make sound choices. Hopefully all that changes in the next couple of weeks, but we’ll see.

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Anyway, I should put that out of my mind for a while. It’s my birthday this weekend, and I’m attempting to organise a party. This could either go splendidly or down like a lead balloon. Low mood brought on by consistent, niggling pokes the universe seems intent on giving me right now is not doing wonders for my state of mind.

Oh well, I’ll crank it out. I usually do.

Stay awesome, everyone.

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Good Evening one and all!

My flipping beast of a laptop has decided to pick up the charming new habit of disconnecting from its battery if I pick it up wrong, so this might have to go up a couple of times…no matter.

Anyway, I’ve been stupidly busy over Easter, with both family and schoolwork, but it’s finally coming together and it’s all looking good.

So, in this installment of ‘What’s going on in Hannah’s head’ this week, I was thinking a bit about boxes. Mental boxes, not physical boxes. I just about finished my abstract philosophy essay this morning, and I’m pretty proud of myself for it. Maybe it is just a question of familiarity. But the thing about mental boxes, or labels, or whatever you want to call them, is that they’re quite a contentious thing these days. I spend a lot of time on Tumblr, when I get the chance, and when I’m not browsing my fandom tags (don’t judge me, okay) I’m skimming through the social activist posts that inevitably crop up on my dashboard. And most of them are on the same wavelength – “Let People Be Who They Are.”

Which is fantastic, but then you get into the argument of just where the boundaries lie, and that’s where you get problems. It’s like a sociological border skirmish.

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Here’s the thing about human beings – we like to put things in boxes. We like to label stuff – there’s evidence to suggest that we form impressions seven seconds after meeting a person, and stereotypes become formed by age 7. It’s probably a defence mechanism – we like to know what we’re dealing with. Ingroup/outgroup, and all that jazz.

Something that came up during my last ‘Philosophy of Psychology’ essay (let’s call it that for now) was that I can’t deal with abstract concepts, like theories with no scientific basis. Which is the whole basis of philosophy, as I see it – it’s all speculation based on either observation or one too many snifters (for further information, please see Monty Python’s ‘The Philosopher’s Song.’). Hence I finally grasped what the hell I was meant to be doing and promptly went, “Ah, f*ck this.” (The same is happening now, except I have more of an idea of how these people think, so it’s no so much of a holy mystery). But, anyway, something that came up between me and my mum was that I don’t do abstract. Like, at all. Stuff that I can’t put away under a label, or in a box, blows my mind.

Realising this was a good thing. I was able to tell him, “Be precise!” when I was doing some DIY on the farm over Easter with my Dad, rather than getting yelled at for getting confused (and then yelling back at him for being confusing) . Usually, I’m quite good at DIY, and at working with Dad cause we’ve had a lot of practice; but sometimes he trails off in the middle of an instruction, and then I can’t read his mind and get confused. Maybe a neurotypical could, depending on level of experience, but I can’t. Please, be precise, I don’t know what you’re thinking. I can’t extrapolate what you want.

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I think, as an Aspie, that’s why I like mental boxes so much. I like to have a category, I like to have a prescribed set of drills, I like to know what I’m supposed to be doing. I think maybe that’s why there’s such a lot of overlap between autism and OCD – it’s not just about the sensory stimulation, the tic-ing, the love of routine et al., et al…it’s about knowing what, or who I’m dealing with, which social scripts to access. The need to have everything where it should be so I can sort through it both mentally and physically.

It’s made more complex by the fact that my dyspraxia means I can’t always make my body or my words do what I want them to. Knowing who or what to expect makes it easier because I have time to activate the right script and practice it. You hear me talking to myself? That’s probably me doing just that.

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So, I see all these people on the internet, arguing about what constitutes a particular label, or what’s the best way of talking to people who identify with a particular group. And different names for the same thing, or different ways of referring to the same thing. Its like wading through a bramble patch. Hence I don’t really engage because I know I’ll slip up, so I stick to what I know.

Yeah, I’m aware of how closed minded I sound. But bear in mind this is the girl who didn’t engage in class discussion from the age of about 12 to 18, who had her first curry at 17 and thought she was brave for trying a korma (I still hate overly spicy food), who found it easier to lie about the fact she was in a same-sex relationship because it was preferable than facing the questions. Who had a complete sexuality crisis when she was in that relationship because she was changing boxes – from a girl who thought her bisexuality was a phase to embracing it fully (and loving every second, might I add).

I want to step outside the box, but it isn’t easy for me. I’m trying, but outside the boxes, I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where the paths are, and I don’t want to get lost.

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As a species, we love boxes, and putting labels on them. For the people that don’t fit in a specific box, it’s tough. Hell, I don’t even fully fit into the Aspie box, but here I am. But labels can be empowering as well as stigmatising, so we shouldn’t throw them out altogether.

I suppose the end message is this: Box things up, but make sure you put them in the right place.

Stay awesome, everyone!

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