Everything You Need to Know About Fidget Toys for Anxiety & ADHD

by Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP June 06, 2017

Everything You Need to Know About Fidget Toys for Anxiety & ADHD

While Fidget Spinners are all the craze right now, many people don’t realize that fidget toys are not just a passing fad! There is much more to this “trend” than fidget spinner challenges, games, and collections -- people with ADHD and anxiety who rely on fidget tools to focus and regulate know this all to be true.

In a 2015 study published by the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, hyperactive movements associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder were found to help people focus better.  Another study published in the Journal of Child Neuropsychology, found that, since hyperactivity is a natural state for children with ADHD,preventing them from fidgeting actually became a distraction and children were better able to learn whenallowed to fidget.

So before you remind your child for the tenth time to sit still at your next family meal, consider whether they are moving to support learning, interacting, and/or focusing. If that is the case, you may find this article on fidget toys to be a good way to shape your child’s hyperactive behavior into something more appropriate.

Focusing, Regulating, and Fidgeting Through It All

When children are younger, they are just beginning to develop self-regulation skills that help them process their environments without getting overwhelmed. Parents provide children with the necessary tools to help kids manage the sensory processing skills, emotional regulation skills, and social skills needed to develop at this stage.  Maybe it’s a favorite blanket to calm down for nap, a pacifier to stop the crying, or a long hug to dry the tears. Whatever the parenting strategy, the reasons for supporting your child are the same: you are facilitating their development and ability to regulate as little beings.  Eventually, children adopt those strategies as tools in their own “self-regulation toolbox” and they come to use them without their parents’ help. As time goes on, those tools evolve with your child until they grow up to be adolescents with more refined self-regulation skills.

By the time we’re all adults, we have developed more automatic, inconspicuous, self-regulation strategies that allow us to pay better attention during that tedious business meeting or de-stress in the middle of an anxiety-producing doctor’s appointment. If you’re adept at keeping these movements subtle, you may find yourself doing something repetitive like foot tapping, hair twirling, fingernail flicking, key twirling, pen cap clicking, or pencil tapping to help you stay alert. We may not even be aware that we are engaging in one of these strategies until someone draws our attention to it!

Some people with sensory processing dysfunction, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or autism find that fidget toys offer the tactile sensory input and repetitive motor movements that are needed to help them with self-regulation. For whatever reasons, their bodies and brains require a fidget toy to sufficiently meet their needs.

What is a Fidget and How Does it Help?

Afidget orfidget toy is an object that aids with focus and attention by allowing the brain to filter extraneous sensory information. By keeping the hands engaged in simple, repetitive motor movements, the user is able to “tune out” what would otherwise be distracting -- lights, sounds, smells, movement, close proximity to other people.  Sometimes, these distractions become too overwhelming.  If you read our article on Preventing Tantrums and Meltdowns, one of the suggestions we made was to offer a tactile fidget to help combat sensory overstimulation. This is a common use for people who have anxiety because it offers a way to self-soothe in predictable, rhythmic motor patterns that are calming.

For some users, fidget toys provide needed sensory input in a less distracting or socially stigmatizing way. Clicking noises, flashing lights, textures, and aromatherapy additions to fidget toys can offer customized sensory input that users otherwise seek out.

These fidgets can be handheld, kept on a keyring, attached to the end of a pencil, or subtly kept in your pocket. Some fidgets are household items that people gravitate towards holding, pulling, pushing, or sliding, while others are specifically designed toys for fidgeting. No matter what you choose, or how much you invest in your fidget tool, it’s important to keep in mind that fidgets are meant to aid concentration, not to distract users.

What to Consider When Choosing a Fidget

There’s a lot to consider when choosing your fidget toy. Sometimes, more isn’t always better though. Keeping the tool simple enough to meet your fidget needs will prevent the tool itself from becoming a distraction.  For example, while the Pikachu-themed fidget spinner with flashing lights and chrome metal mayseem like a super cool solution, it may be used as a toy instead of the tool you intend for it to be for your 9-year old Pokemon fanatic!

Here are some general guidelines to think about when choosing a fidget:

  • Cost - keep it no- or low-cost if you anticipate needing to replace your fidget often! We’ve listed a number of no-cost or low-cost solutions that won’t leave you maxxing out your credit card to replace fidget #5!
  • Consider materials that aredurable if your fidget toy is going to get a lot of use (and cost money!). If you’re going to make an investment, you want it to last!
  • Along the lines of considering the materials, think about thetextures- bumpy, squishy, hard, soft, rough, smooth? It’s a matter of preference for the user.
  • Whatmotor movement(s) does the fidget allow for? What does your child like? Flicking, flapping, shaking, eye angling, squeezing, pulling? There are fidget toys for a plethora of motor movements so know what your child wants to do with it.
  • When, where, and howwill your fidget be put to use? Identifying how often you’ll need to use the fidget (and where) will help you know whether you should be looking for a wearable solution versus one that can attach to a keyring, be school-approved, or home-use-only.
  • Noises, smells, and lights, oh my! Believe it or not, you can get a fidget customized with aromatherapy scents. The addition of noise, smell, and light adds sensory input that some users may need, but to others it may be overwhelming and unnecessary.

No Cost Fidget Ideas

If you’re lucky, your fidget needs will be met by a free or no-cost household item that is easily found and easily replaced! Here are some commonly favored free fidgets:

  • Bendable plastic straw (or sometimes just the wrapper!)
  • Paperclip
  • Hair scrunchie or elastic
  • Pen/pencil - bonus if it has a pen cap
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Shoelace (straight or curly/elastic)
  • Worry stone

The DIY fidget possibilities are limitless! Check out Adapt & Learn’s Pinterest Page for some easy DIYs that put your junk drawer contents to good use!

Some Low Cost Fidget Toys

Great websites that specialize in fidget products offer a multitude of options depending on user preferences. Check out Fidget Club and Focusfied for more options than the ones we’ve selected below. Here are some of our ultimate favorite fidgets:

 

Aaron’s Thinking Putty - We LOVE this thinking putty and all of the varieties possible! Users love the temperature color-changing, glow-in-the-dark, UV light-sensitive, and metallic putties that come in 3 different sizes! Its subtle, silent, and portable - push, pull, stretch, mold, twist, pinch. Gone are the days of boring theraputty or silly putty!


Tangle - Tangle Creations has come up with a wide variety of sensory-minded fidget and recently expanded their product line to include Tangle Therapy and Brain Tools. We like that the Tangle is available in different colors, textures, and sizes. For people who like to pull the pieces apart and reassemble them, the Tangle allows for flexibility with patterning and design. Best of all, it looks like a bracelet so it can be inconspicuous! Keep in mind that there are little parts that comprise the Tangle, so this would not be the choice for young children or users who mouth non-food items!



Fidget Cubes like Squidget - This new product has us excited with all of the Fidget possibilities! The Squidget cube allows for movements that would meet the needs of the everyday pencil roller, tab spinner, hair twirler, edge rubber, button twirler, and nail deep pressure seeker. It’s about the size of a quarter and there’s even a model to attach to a pencil or pen (S.O.A.P. = Squidget on a Pen!).


GyRings - Spin, Flip, Snap, and Roll! These GyRings were developed by a 15-year old boy with ADHD and have taken off in popularity because of their discreet multi-fidget functions.

 

 

Fidget KeyChain Toys

One of the easiest ways to keep track of your fidget is to attach it to a carabiner or keychain - attach it to your favorite jacket zipper, backpack, purse, or belt loop. Many of your favorite fidgets can be found on a keyring. Here are some of our favorites:

Boinks Fidget Carabiner                              
Coil Clip-On Keychain                                  
Bike Chain Fidget Keychain

 

    Wearable Fidget Toys

    Wristbands, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. You’re less likely to lose something you wear and more likely to use a fidget if it’s attached to you! Here are some to consider:

    Tangle Harry Jr.
    Chew Jewelry (see our oral motor fidgets)
    Zipper bracelets or Coil Bracelets
    Wristful Fidget

      

    Fidgets for the Classroom

    The name of the game in school is discreet and silent. Because hands are usually occupied by other tasks, these fidgets can be attached to a desk, chair, or weighted lap pad. Here are some teacher-approved fidgets:

    Boinks Fidget
    Pencil toppers                                                   
    Bouncy Bands

     

    Oral Motor Fidgets

    Some users prefer to explore fidgets with their handand mouth! Considering oral motor sensory input has an organizing effect, it’s no wonder that these oral motor fidgets were designed for chewing, sucking, biting, or mouthing.Fidget Club has a great list of oral motor fidgets and we love Chewbeads for their wearable, colorful, and fun jewelry that is designed to chew and fiddle with for adults and kids alike!

     

    Rules of Fidgets

    Remember, if your child is taking a fidget to school, teachers and IEP/504 teams may want some clarification as to the rules of fidgets. Harkla's Pinterest page has some great one-page graphics of rules, but essentially they all advise students on the same things:

    1. A fidget is a small object to help you pay attention to the teacher.
    2. You can hold it, move it, and play with itwhile you are looking at the teacher.
    3. You can use a fidget when you are having trouble paying attention or keep touching things.
    4. Do not use your fidget to get the attention of your friends.
    5. The fidget must stay in your hands or on your desk.

    Now that you’ve chosen your fidgets and set the expectations, we hope that fidgeting finds you focused and calm. Let us at Harkla know how you fidget to focus!

    Resources

    Hartanto, T. A., Krafft, C. E., Iosif, A. M., & Schweitzer, J. B. (2015). A trial-by-trial analysis reveals more intense physical activity is associated with better cognitive control performance in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Child Neuropsychology, (ahead-of-print), 1-9.


    Sarver, Dustin E., Mark D. Rapport, Michael J. Kofler, Joseph S. Raiker, and Lauren M. Friedman. "Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?" SpringerLink. Springer US, 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 03 June 2017.

    Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP
    Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP

    Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with over 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning. Alescia strives to help children by fostering a love of learning and supports families with her parent-friendly, informative blog posts. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn, LLC on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic, family, and educational supports. You can get more information on Alescia and her practice at www.adaptandlearn.com


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