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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Spinners

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

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