The Internet has been buzzing nonstop about fidget spinners, the latest craze to invade workplaces and schools. These pocket-sized devices, which can be spun with the flick of a finger, are marketed to ease the symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, and, for people with autism, sensory sensitivity. But can these little toys really improve focus and help create inner calm? To find out, we spoke with Pilar Trelles, MD, a psychiatrist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Her short answer: Yes, fidget spinners can help folks cope with higher-than-average energy levels, anxiety, or extreme sensitivity to certain environments. For example, explains Dr. Trelles, “when someone is hypersensitive to the environment they might bite their nails, pull out their cuticles, or pinch their skin.” Fidget spinners offer a less harmful way to expend that nervous energy.
Using sensory toys as a tool to calm down is nothing new: One study showed that squeezing a stress ball during surgery can lower anxiety by 18% and pain by 22%. Other research has found that squeezing stress balls in time with four slow breaths helped people with cancer relieve stress before and during medical procedures.
To get our top stories delivered to you inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter
Like using a stress ball, flicking a fidget spinner is considered a rapid stress management technique (RSMT), says Dr. Trelles—and for people with ADHD and anxiety, it's best used as a supplement to treatment. “Psychotherapy and medications work well, especially with adults,” she explains. “Devices should be used in conjunction with these things because only using a toy to cure your anxiety isn’t going to get you where you need to be.”
Since people experience anxiety, autism, and ADHD on a spectrum, fidget spinners will have varying levels of effectiveness, says Dr. Trelles. But in general, fidget spinners can be soothing for people with anxiety, or someone with autism who is experiencing an anxious reaction. And for those with ADHD, "the repetitive act of spinning the toy may help [them] from feeling like they need to jump out of their chairs," she says. “Anything that isn’t hurting you or causing a disruption, I’m an advocate for."
Many schools have banned fidget spinners, citing them as a distraction. So what can a kid who benefits from this toy do instead? Fortunately, there are plenty of other RSMTs to choose from, says Dr. Trelles. Some children spread a thin layer of glue on their hands, let it dry, and then peel it off to deal with their anxiety. (This also keeps them from peeling off their own skin, Dr. Trelles notes.) Another option: Stick a piece of Velcro underneath the child's desk so she can play with the texture for a soothing effect. Children who have autism or ADHD tend to develop better coping strategies in time, adds Dr. Trelles.
Curious about testing out a fidget spinner yourself? “As long as it’s not interfering with you or others, and it makes you feel calmer, I say go for it,” says Dr. Trelles.