Do fidget toys really help improve focus or concentration?

Gadgets and fads are fun. I remember toys like the Tamagotchi that took over my life for a few days, or trying, and horribly failing, to get a rhythm with Devil sticks. But the latest gadget making headlines is supposed to be more than a toy – some are considering it a treatment.

Fidget spinners, as well as fidget cubes, are sold as a way to help promote focus and concentration, particularly with children and adults diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, and autism. The way the toys work is pretty straightforward: hold, then fidget. The spinners rest on one finger while other fingers spin the device; the fidget cubes have a variety of buttons, switches, toggles, and discs that can be flicked, poked, and moved.

A bit of background

The original fidget spinner was created by a woman who wanted to stop young men from throwing rocks at police and people in Israel more than 20 years ago – for real, she spoke with CNN and you can see a copy of the original patent.

“It started as a way of promoting peace, and then I went on to find something that was very calming,” designer Catherine Hettinger told CNN Money. The patent expired in 2005, and recently the production and sale of spinners from a variety of sources has exploded.

Video: Unboxing a Fidget Spinner via GeekBite

The claims versus the experts

From excessively long Amazon descriptions that claim spinners are perfect for people with anxiety, ADD, ADHD, autism, or are trying to quit bad habits, or need to stay awake or… (you get the idea), to headlines that promise a clear explanation of why the devices work, getting through the information as to what fidget devices actually do is tricky.

An admittedly brief search shows no studies directly observing the affect of fidget devices for people with mental health diagnoses, or developmental disabilities. Vox.com spoke with a psychologist whose research shows that children with ADHD who are encouraged to squirm or move may have improved focus – but he made it clear that there’s no indication spinners would accomplish the same result. A CBS affiliate in Philadelphia spoke with a pediatrician who noted that occupational therapists use “distracters to help people concentrate on what they’re doing” and a psychologist who says the devices “may be beneficial” to some kids with ADHD.

An occupational therapist told U.S. News that fidget objects should be felt so focus can remain elsewhere, whereas “spinner toys are visually distracting, and I think that’s their major drawback.”

The Everyday Fray audience

I asked The Everyday Fray Podcast audience on both Twitter and Facebook if, in their personal (as in they’ve used them) experience, spinners or fidget toys are helpful. The results are mixed: parents responded two children focus better, for one child it seems more like a toy, and one adult finds an increase in focus with their use. A parent expanded that their child’s mind goes “a mile a minute,” but when they can touch or hold something, they “calm down and can mostly be still.”

Others are generally curious about whether there’d be an improvement and seem tempted to try.

My View

I have no idea if spinners and fidget toys work. My initial reaction to seeing advertisements, and friends ordering devices was that it’s just the latest fad. And then while reading articles about the fidget devices, I noticed I was picking at my finger nails; when sitting in a meeting, I was fiddling with a pen and squeezing a stress ball (it’s actually a person curled up in the fetal position, and it’s amazing); and even when sitting in the passenger seat on the way to an appointment, tapping along with the drums of a song on the radio.

I’m going to take the advice of a friend and order a fidget cube and a spinner to see for myself, because why not? They’re relatively low in cost, and they might help me focus or burn off bits of nervous energy while I work. At worst, I’ll have wasted $10 or so, and at best, I might find another tool to help me concentrate and improve my workflow. I’ll post about my experience as I get fidget devices, and play with them.

After reading reliable news sources, interviews, and looking for studies on fidget devices for two days, I don’t feel comfortable saying that they do all their billed to be – at least not for all people, and claims or pitches (particularly from children who are always interested in being part of the latest trend) should be taken with that in mind. But enough people who live with ADD, ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, or any other condition, find a bit of relief or improvement by using them to make me think it’s at least worth investigating for yourself, with a reasonable constraint of expectations.

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