MAY 24, 2017 7:02 AM PDT

Fidgeting, Spinning and ADHD: What's Real and What's Not

In schools all across the country, fidget cubes and spinners are a hot commodity. Proponents of the trendy new toys say they can help those with anxiety, autism or ADHD focus in class, stay on task longer and curb impulsive behavior. Fidgeting is usually a major issue in those with ADHD. It’s also present in autistic children and patients with anxiety, but it’s a chicken and egg conundrum. Do some of these children move around and fidget because of a disorder like ADHD, or is the fidgeting and movement a necessary coping mechanism that can alleviate the symptoms and problems associated with a disorder that interferes with focus?

The opinions of experts in education, neuroscience and child development remain divided on the issue. In 2015, researchers from the University of California-Davis studied the correlation between movement in ADHD patients and performance on cognitive tests that required focus and the ability to filter out distractions. They tested 26 teens and pre-teens diagnosed with ADHD and 18 typical participants with a “flanker test” which involves having to track the movement and direction of several arrows on a screen. They also fitted the study volunteers with motion detecting ankle bracelets. When the data was collected, there was a correlation between an increased amount of movement and better performance among the group of teens who had ADHD. No relation to movement and test scores was found in the typical group.

At the time, study author Julie Schweitzer, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and head of the UC Davis ADHD Program, told NBC News, “It's not anything conscious, but you see children use hyperactivity to boost their attention. They go up and down the room, and jump on chairs and dive under the tables when something is very demanding or boring. When they are concentrating hard, their tongues are moving. There is always movement." This research is often what marketers point to when they tout the fidget cubes and spinners as helpful to children with hyperactivity disorders. The problem is, the UC Davis study only showed an association between movement and higher scores, and as any good researcher knows, correlation does not equal causation. The study was also not specific to any one kind of motion such as using a spinner or fidget cube.

On the other side of the issue are the educators and parents who feel that the toys are distracting, and in some cases, dangerous. A Texas 10 year old put one of the toys in her mouth and nearly choked, requiring surgery to remove a part of the spinner from her esophagus. In a story for NPR, Oklahoma music teacher, Elizabeth Maughan said of the spinners, “They do make a noise. When you have 10 or 15 in a room, it's just this whirring and it's an irresistible siren call for everyone else to turn around and look at whoever has it out, and [it's] completely distracting. It seemed like one day there was a few, and the next day there was a few, and the next day everyone had them. They just appeared really fast," she says. "Of course, they drop them, and they clatter and pieces of them fall out and then they're chasing ball bearings around the room. It just adds to the chaos."

What is not in debate is the popularity of the cubes and spinners. A Manhattan based wholesaler told the New York Post that in the month of April alone, they sold 20 million units to big box stores like Wal-mart, Toys R Us and Party City. Some schools have banned them, while others have incorporated them into special needs classrooms. Either way, the spinners and cubes will likely be around for a while, until the next fad takes over. The video below features a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD treatment speaking about the lack of science behind the trend.

Sources: NBC NewsUC DavisJournal of Abnormal PsychologyNPR New York Post 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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