An Odd View of Fidget Spinners & Other Fidget Toys

20150422_033833000_iOSAnti-Anxiety fidget spinner toys have become a crazed fad. The devices are a must have for the in crowd at schools. Like any parent of a child on the Autism spectrum, searching for anything that will assist your efforts to clam, focus, and soothe your child is an obsession. Doubly so for this parent also on the spectrum. In this post, I review the various fidget toys and devices we use and have tried with our special Aspie son.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulty with executive functioning and self-regulation. A good primer on executive function and self-regulation may be linked to here. In effect, people with ASD may experience poor capacity to organize sensory input for subsequent regulation. In Simple terms, information received through our five senses may or may not be categorized by our brain sufficient for us to determine how to react in a socially appropriate manner. Fidgeting may actually assist people on ASD with executive function and self-regulation.

Fidgeting behaviors are repetitive, subconscious, and generally done with the hands or feet in addition to being culturally associated with inattentiveness. As an educator, I have been socialized err…trained to consider fidgeting in my classroom as inattentiveness. I have shifted my thinking through my experience discovering the odd, having an Aspie child, and being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Within the last few years, some research has investigated possible connections between poor executive function, self-regulation, and fidgeting behaviors exhibited by people on the Autism Spectrum. Of note are two studies that found fidgeting improves focus, executive function, and self-regulation. A good summary of these studies may be found here.

Needless to say, as a parents of a child on the spectrum, we’ll search for and try nearly anything that will assist our efforts to promote calmness, focus, executive function, and self-regulation for our special Aspie boy, whom we love dearly and are grateful to have as a member of our family.

A  couple weeks ago, before starting this blog and after viewing a news report on fidget spinners, I did some research on that particular device and alternatives. My apologies for the next paragraph, it sounds like an Amazon commercial — yuck(!). But, it is the research process I followed.

Prior to starting this blog, I went to Amazon and searched for fidget spinners with the intent to purchase. What I like about Amazon are the customer reviews that I read before making a decision to purchase. Product ratings matter to me as I associate them with empirical support, even if the reviews would qualify as qualitative evidence, from a scientific perspective. Empirical support is a sacred totem for those trained in scientific method.

While researching the product on Amazon, I’ll also scroll down and look for substitute products (alternatives) in the event there is a better price for a similar product, and google the product for any additional information about quality and price. (I’m an educator in a state that is ranked 49th in teacher compensation out of 50 states in the USA. So yeah, I take better prices whenever I can because pennies matter to our family budget).

As noted, my intent had been to purchase a fidget spinner for my son, but as I read reviews, and considered the design of the device in relation to how my son fidgets, I became less convinced the fidget spinner was suitable for my son. Reflecting on how our son fidgets led me to recall that as a baby, and still in childhood, he locates the nearest tag on a textile, toy, or whatever and rubs between his thumb, index finger, and ring finger. Sometimes, he would rub between just his index and ring fingers. Often, the tags or textile would be soaked from his chewing.

In short, he seeks sensory input / fidgets with his fingers and through putting things in his mouth. We were obsessive about choking hazards during his first few years and remain vigilant. We have observed that he resorted to these behaviors especially during moments of distress or anxiety, like being put down for a nap, to bed for the night, a change in his routine, or experiencing sensory overload.

Falling asleep has always been a challenge for our son. He would intermittently wail for an hour or two before falling asleep while working whatever tag was closest with fervor. He still has difficulty calming down at night before, eventually, falling asleep. He relies on soothing devices including his small teddy bear, an ice pack, and books – usually five or more in his bed. He likes to read and we encourage this activity. The Dogman series is a favorite right now as is any book on Star Wars, extreme weather, and blacksmithing.

If sensory overloaded, he would hide behind a parent while placing hands over ears and closing his eyes. Sometimes, this reaction to sensory overload would be accompanied by some sort of unintelligible loud verbal expression and him running around to find a path away from the cause/s.

His primary soothing device was – shoot! remains – his teddy bear, picked by him because of the red hoodie this teddy wears. If teddy is no where to be found at bedtime, it is a ‘YUGE’ family crisis. We may be going outside to the car, regardless of weather, with a flashlight or tearing the house apart to search every nook and cranny to find that teddy bear. Usually, teddy is in the most obvious place: his bed, stuffed in his pillow case or suspended in a blanket, made into a teddy cot, in between his bunk beds.

He engages in the same rubbing and chewing behavior with his teddy’s fur though, the tag on the teddy has long since disintegrated. And, teddy better be in the car, on his booster seat, when he is picked up from school, it helps our son, I think, to release the stress of the school day. He usually takes a couple minutes of special teddy time, in the car, before speaking, usually a question about what’s next on the schedule followed by his approval or disapproval and, if disapproval, navigating what follows.

Speaking of school, we are fortunate that our son is at a magnet school, requiring a lottery to win a slot to attend. This school receives a little more funding, better teachers, and more curricular activities than the typical elementary school in our school district. In a previous post, I mentioned the incorporation of medication into the therapy regime we rely on to support our son. Even with that medication, school can be a challenge for him, especially remaining still and focused when the school activity requires. In addition to the ADHD medication to address this issue, we have tried an assorted number of fidget devices with mixed results.

We’ve tried a sensory seat / cushion. One of those inflatable blue seat cushions with nubs on one side. Too large to carry around and inconvenient. It stays at home and is used more to play with than for its therapeutic value. The school has several available if our son is in desperate need. He has enough self-awareness to know when he needs the assistance from this device and will request one at school.

Also, we tried pencil chews. He liked them, for a time. As a baby he would crawl around with his bottle in his mouth, take a swig when he needed, and chew the bottle nipple. We thought maybe this would work with one of his sensory seeking behaviors. In the end, these were too messy (germs!) for us and we could not guarantee that he would use appropriately at school. Plus, we were concerned with supporting an oral based sensory seeking behavior which, may lead we thought (accurate or not), to other unhealthy habits like smoking, chewing tobacco, etc. We save them for long road trips, other similar activities, or when he is really starting to meltdown. “Chew on this, bud.” It works to stave off the worst of the meltdown by putting his mind on something else.

We had high hopes for the tangle sensory device. Held his interest for a short period then moved on. Still, we keep them handy as one of several small and portable sensory devices that may soothe / distract. So unpredictable are what will help our son soothe and calm, we try to be well prepared with a number of choices.

What all of these fidget devices have in common is that they do not work with how our son generally fidgets. He consistently reverts to rubbing a textile between his fingers as described above or fingers, teddy, or clothing in mouth being chewed upon. We are constantly reminding him to not chew or put things in his mouth. Maybe, this is a losing battle? In middle school and high school, I constantly had chewing gum in my mouth, especially during participation in basketball practice and games, in violation of school policy. In elementary school, my pencils were bore the marks of having been chewed. Hmm…have to give this more thought.

Returning to my research on Amazon. I came across marble fidget toy that, relying on product pictures, I could imagine my son utilizing in his preferred finger based fidgeting behavior. For less than $13 plus state sales tax (as Prime members we get free shipping), we purchased a package of 14 marble fidget toys in assorted colors. Our daughter was excited to have a pink one just like her big brother’s red one. Plus, two of the marble fidget toys came attached to a carabiner, one in our son’s favorite color – red, meaning that our son could attach the red marble fidget toy with a red carabiner, to his belt loop, backpack, etc., making it available whenever he needed to fidget in order to clam, soothe, and focus.

Our first experience with the marble fidget toy was at church. In our faith tradition, children remain with families during the main service. I am unashamed to admit that we are backbenchers at church, partly because of my social anxiety for which I now have increasing clarity concerning through my recent Asperger’s diagnosis, and partly because our son can be, well, loud, squirmy, crawling over-under-around pews, and generally disruptive to other church ladies (and their men) who glare and sneer at us for being unable to “control” our child. Church culture is such a drag.

We still go to church, in small part, out of spite for those church ladies (and their men) and because we retain belief. I should add, (because my wife told me to) those church ladies (and their men) to whom I refer, are in previous congregations in which we are no longer members, in different states than the one in which we now live. Current congregation has been very supportive and has a small number of families with children on ASD. Experience begets understanding and acceptance – at least more than we’ve experienced anywhere else.

All this is to say, we were VERY pleased with how the marble fidget toy assisted our son. He sat reasonably still which is to say he remained within six or so inches of the place where he first sat, was quiet, focused, calm, and rubbed the heck out of that red marble fidget attached to his church pants belt loop by that red carabiner. This behavior remained consistent in his Sunday School classes that followed the main congregation meeting. If you are a parent of an ASD child, you know how absolutely fantastic are these results!

We have received no complaints from his teacher at school regarding the marble fidget toy which, we take as a good sign. This is unlike the fidget spinners which seem to be creating all sorts of controversies in schools around the country. Our son has been scrupulous and conscientious maintaining possession of his marble fidget toy at school, church, parks, wherever. An often difficult executive function for people with ASD. He guards it almost with the same obsession as his teddy. Curiously, he rarely chews on the marble fidget toy. Or, maybe, I have rarely observed him doing so – probably need more observations before definitively concluding.

In the end, we do what works for us and our son and respect that you will do the same for your ASD, Sensory Seeking Disorder (SSD), or ADHD child. If nothing else, I hope that this review of our efforts to assist our son through various fidget toys and devices provides you with useful information that may assist your parenting efforts on behalf of your ASD, SSD, or ADHD child. As parents to special needs children, we are in this odd experience together.

Concerning the next post, still reflecting, researching, and gathering my thoughts on a post about the effects of ASD on siblings. Will post soon.

Questions about how I may benefit from your clicking through any of the links to Amazon in this post, may be reviewed on my Disclosures Page. However, doing so helps support this blog and supplements a poor educator’s income. Thank you!

3 thoughts on “An Odd View of Fidget Spinners & Other Fidget Toys

  1. This is interesting, I know a very bald, endlessly stroked and stitched 14 year old blue teddy bear that only recently was relegated to his parents’ room for safe-keeping. Books, too, took up almost as much room as he did in bed.

    Liked by 2 people

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