Updated by Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L
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 when allowed 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 for anxiety and ADHD to be a good way to shape your child’s hyperactive behavior into something more appropriate.
Here's what we will cover in this article:
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 a 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. These are all ways that “fidgeting” helps us maintain our state of regulation. 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.
A fidget or fidget 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. As a result, a fidget can be a great way to provide stress relief or anxiety relief.
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.
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 may seem 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:
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:
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!
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! It's 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!
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.
Stress balls - There are many options in today’s market for stress balls. Most stress balls offer some sort of resistance, making it hard to squeeze. This provides the user with proprioceptive input, which can have an immediate calming effect on the brain. Some additional benefits of using a stress ball include improved focus and attention, reduction in anxiety, and a way to strengthen fine motor skills.
Fidget cube - A fidget cube is another popular option that helps keep hands busy. Typically, each side has a different feature, including clicking, flipping, rolling, and gliding. This offers a versatile way to get needed sensory input.
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:
FidgetWorks Bike Chain Key Ring: This fidget is small, compact, and offers a rolling sensation that is calming for some. It is also one of the quieter fidgets on the market, making it perfect for a classroom setting.Simpl Dimpl: The Simpl Dimpl is another compact, quiet option for a fidget keychain. It has silicon buttons that can be pushed up and down repeatedly. There is also a small amount of texture on the button, making this a great option for those who need a fidget and a little tactile input.
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:Fidgeto Sensory Bracelet: This bracelet comes in a rainbow color as well as skin tone colors, for those wanting a more discreet option. It has soft, spikey edges on the upside of the bracelet, allowing for fidgeting and tactile input. This is a popular option for those who may engage in picking behaviors when fidgeting.
Wearable sensory spinner ring: This is an option for those who find a fidget spinner to be a helpful tool. This item is actually worn as a ring and is able to be spun by the wearer when needing to fidget or keep hands busy. It should be noted that this is a small object and therefore not appropriate for those who may mouth objects, as it could be a choking hazard.
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:
Some users prefer to explore fidgets with their hand and 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!
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:
Now that you’ve chosen your fidgets and set the expectations, we hope that fidgeting finds you focused and calm.
Check out our list of the 10 best fidget & stim toys for even more info and ideas and let us at Harkla know how you fidget to focus!
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.
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