Fidget Toys and ADHD: Still Paying Attention?

 ADHD Weekly, January 31, 2019

Has the fidget spinner fad finally passed? It’s been more than a year and a half since the gizmos caught our collective attention. They seemed to be everywhere and in every little hand, and then poof! not a spinner to be seen.

Fidget spinners were intensely popular in ADHD circles, promising to help increase attention by giving the user an outlet for fidgeting. Adults took them into meetings and students had them in the classroom. Parents wanted their use included in academic plans and teachers worried about distraction during class.

Last summer, the spinners were all marked 75 percent off and the craze seemed over. But was there something to the idea that a fidget toy could help a person—especially one who struggles with ADHD symptoms—maintain attention and do better with his work?

The science of fidgeting

Several research studies have confirmed what many people have experienced through fidgeting: Their ability to pay attention, their memory recall, and their problem-solving improves. Another study concluded that the fidgety behavior displayed by children and adults with ADHD may be an effort to increase their attention and alertness. The amount of improvement varies by the person and the fidgeting activity can also become a distraction if it’s too intense.

“If you are trying to focus on a task, but your hands are busy doing something else, it actually forces your brain to increase your efforts to focus on the task at hand,” says Matthew Lorber, MD, a child psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “There have been some small scale studies that show people with ADHD do better on tasks if given some sort of outlet to get out their energy, to distract their hands. While fidget spinners specifically haven’t been studied, there have been studies that have shown in general that someone with ADHD with something to fidget with—such as tapping a pen—perform better on tasks.”

Fidgeting by children and adults is any small activity that helps to burn off a little bit of energy, such as twirling hair, tapping feet, drumming fingers on a tabletop or wiggling in chair. Often people will find some small item to play with—clicking pens, tossing a hacky-sack back and forth, doodling. Enter the fidget toy, a specially made item that aids in fidgeting.

Do fidget toys actually help?

While fidgeting is scientifically shown to help with attention, we lack studies showing that fidget toys do help. Simple fidgeting tools, such as textured putty or squeezy balls that allow quiet, non-distracting movement seem to be helpful. More elaborate toys like fidget spinners, twirling toys, or links pull attention away from where it should be, however.

What is the difference between a fidget tool and a fidget toy? The tool, like the squeeze toy, allows quiet activity that doesn’t bring your focus toward it. Manipulating such an item can happen in the background of your activity. A toy, though, ends up capturing your attention because you either need to watch it to maintain control or you are actively trying to do neat tricks with it.

“The need for these spinners stemmed from a desire to control the symptoms of ADHD,” says Cory Sicard, a middle school science teacher in Parker, Colorado. “Unfortunately the spinners can also take children’s attention away from what they are seeing and hearing. Plus, the spinning and movement serves as a distraction to other students in the room.”

Professionals who treat ADHD don’t see the value in many gizmos marketed as fidget toys for this reason.

“My worry is that they’re very much a distraction, not only to the child, but it distracts people from doing something that we know works,” says Mark Stein, PhD, ABPP, of the PEARL Clinic/ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Fidgeting to focus: what does help

If wiggling and fidgeting help you pay better attention, but most fidget toys end up causing you to pay less attention to the task at hand, what can you do?

It may take a little experimentation. Look for tools that help you get the wiggles out in ways that are quiet and autonomic. Putty, squeeze toys, fidget cubes, wobble seats for your chair, chewing gum, worry stones—all of these can be helpful. Activities using these items tend to fade to the background as you pay attention to your task. For children, many of these items can go quietly into a classroom without becoming a distraction.

Taking brief breaks at regular times can help to release energy. You may find that a walk or a snack improves your focus when you resume the task. Understanding how long you can maintain your attention is also important. This allows you to plan your activities with regular breaks rather than trying to push through and end up losing your attention on the task.

For children, adding brief amounts of exercise to their day can also improve their attention when it’s time for seatwork. Gym class, recess, and playing outside after school can all help.

Interested in reading more on this?

Join the discussion: What fidgets are helpful for you or your child?