An OT’s Spin on Fidget Spinners…Why Sensory Tools Are Not One-Size-Fits-All
FIDGET SPINNERS…The latest craze that has kids flocking to novelty stores and begging parents for their Amazon Buy-Now password (yikes!). Wikipedia defines a fidget spinner as a type of stress-relieving toy, which consists of a bearing in the center of a design made from brass, stainless steel, titanium, copper and/or plastic. Now available in countless varieties (glow-in-the-dark, tie-dye, glitter), the enthusiasm among children continues to soar. Fidget spinners have been advertised as helping people who have trouble focusing or fidgeting, such as those with anxiety, ADHD, or autism. Experts, as well as the community at large, have been divided on this claim and uncertain of any scientific basis. This swiftly growing fad has even made headlines on local and national news, as school administrators look to create boundaries and policies about if and how they should be used in the classroom. Students have been reporting to their teachers that they have ADHD and need the fidget toy to help them focus (sometimes valid, sometimes not). Teachers are trying to create and enforce rules to prevent classroom distraction and disruption to other students, just as end-of-year enthusiasm and energy among students reaches its highest peak.
Pediatric Occupational Therapists specialize in the evaluation and treatment of sensory processing and sensory integration needs and conditions. So…what is an Occupational Therapist’s Spin on Fidget Spinners?!?!
Educators, healthcare professionals and families are working hard to advocate for greater awareness, accessibility and inclusion of students with different needs and abilities. Greater access and equality in educational and community programs can help children achieve their greatest potential. There have been great strides in developing greater awareness and acceptance of sensory needs and sensory strategies for students with various learning needs, including autism, ADHD and anxiety, but we must be diligent in our efforts to provide accurate information and effective interventions. Sensory strategies are never one-size-fits-all, just as individual students do not have the same needs, abilities, personalities or learning styles. The most effective educational methods will always be those that take into account the individualized needs, abilities and interests of each student.
WE ALL have sensory needs and preferences. WE ALL have sensory strategies that we use to alert and calm us throughout our daily activities and routines (whether we realize it or not). Certain sounds, smells, sights and touch may alert or calm your neurological system. For many, we might think of a warm bubble bath with dimmed lights and soft music as being very relaxing and calming after a chaotic day. Or the need to take a walk (or run) to the coffee maker and prepare a hot cup o’joe during an afternoon slump in order to alert your system and push through the remainder of the afternoon or evening. Some children (and adults) are over-responsive or under-responsive to sensory stimuli, and/or have difficulty processing and integrating sensory information in order to function successfully in their daily activities and routines.
Sensory Toolboxes or a “Sensory Diet” (incorporating sensory strategies into daily routines) can be extremely helpful for many children at home and in school. Seek the guidance of an Occupational Therapist that specializes in Sensory Integration to develop an effective plan and resources for children with sensory needs.
So although Fidget Spinners are not One-Size-Fits-All…There are 3 Specific Ways Fidget Spinners can be Helpful…Aside from just being Fun!
- As a Distraction Tool.
Distraction Toys or Tools work to reduce anxiety and distress for children during medical procedures. Ask your child’s medical team if a Child Life Specialist is available. Child Life Specialists are experts in helping children find effective play-based coping strategies to ease anxiety and discomfort during medical experiences. By guiding a child’s attention away from painful stimuli, distraction tools can decrease the perception of pain, enabling nurses and physicians to complete tasks such as IV insertion and laceration repairs more quickly and efficiently (and often with less medication). In addition, using developmentally appropriate distraction tools can reduce the time, medication and staff members needed for a procedure. Always prioritize the presence and encourage the involvement of the child’s parent or trusted adult. They can provide valuable information about the child’s preferences.
- When Waiting.
One of the hardest skills to learn is…. to wait (particularly for a child with attention challenges). A simple meal at a restaurant or trip to the pediatrician has the diaper bag or mom’s purse stocked with an arsenal of games, coloring books & activities. Or maybe your mobile devices are full of fun, engaging apps in preparation for the many moments that require your child to wait. But there is a balance between having a toolkit ready to help a child during wait times, and teaching the skill (or dare we call it the “art”) of waiting. If we disregard the need to learn and practice waiting, we miss valuable opportunities to prevent behavior incidents and prepare children for success in school, as well as success later in life. If we look closely at situations that can often trigger children to act out, behave impulsively or even become aggressive, it can often be wait times that are the culprit.
Tips for Helping Children Develop Waiting Skills
- Help children recognize upcoming wait times. Help children identify expected and unexpected behaviors when they hear common phrases that indicate the need to wait (“hold on a minute”, “hang on”, “hold your horses”…that’s always an interesting one!).
- Provide waiting tools & strategies. See Distraction Tools above for several helpful ideas. A fidget spinner can be a great waiting tool for school age and adolescent children.
- Keep activities structured with clear expectations and predictability. Give children structured jobs during wait times, such as helping to set the dinner table at home or sharpening pencils in the classroom.
- As a Transitional Object.
A transitional object is defined as “a comfort object used to provide psychological comfort, especially in unusual or unique situations”. Transitional objects are typically something soft, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, that bring feelings of comfort; however children often develop preferences for various items based on their unique interests and sensory preferences. As a parent of a child with sensory needs and a history of anxiety, I can truly appreciate my son’s 2nd grade teacher, and her encouragement for each student in her class to bring a “Reading Buddy” to school each day. They are only allowed to bring one stuffed animal, although they can bring a different one each day if they choose. They can leave it in the classroom to have it readily available each day, or take it to and from school at the end of the school day if they prefer. Her primary intention may be to foster improved reading fluency, but in addition to academic growth, she has also provided a developmentally appropriate method of embedding the children’s desire and need for transitional objects into her classroom routine. Instead of being isolated to backpacks and cubbies, these treasured transitional objects have found their place embraced and appropriately integrated into the classroom structure and learning environment.
The reliance on transitional or comfort objects is rooted in sensory elements (often tactile) that lessen the stress of separation, provide comfort, and help children develop self-regulation skills. When children are able to select and utilize a meaningful transitional object, it often represents a bridge between home and school, and even more importantly, a secure connection during changes between daily activities and routines. A quiet, developmentally appropriate transitional object (like a fidget spinner for school age children or adolescents) can be an effective method to encourage self-regulation strategies during stressful or challenging transitions, and unexpected changes in routines.
Christina Connors, OTR/L received her degree in Occupational Therapy from Towson University in Baltimore, MD, and has been working as an Occupational Therapist with children and adults since 2002. Inspired by her son’s medical journey, and her desire to ease anxiety and improve age-appropriate communication for children and families facing medical challenges, Christina developed Child Inspired in collaboration with artist John Donato. Child InspiredTM is working to bring a blend of Art, Therapy and Functional Communication to healthcare and education settings in order to bridge the needs of children, families and healthcare & education professionals.