Vlog 22: Can Fidget Spinners Help With ADHD? | The Body of Evidence

Vlog 22: Can Fidget Spinners Help With ADHD?

Fidget spinners are all the rage, but is there scientific evidence that they can help children with ADHD and autism? Jonathan investigates.



Hey, this is Jonathan from The Body of Evidence,

If you want to get my attention in a social situation, just say, "You know, that thing that's really popular? Apparently, there's scientific evidence behind it".

Today, we talk fidget spinners.

It's like a dreidel but with no rules, look... I transfer energy to it, and it spins, and then decelerates.

I was at a BBQ the other day and someone mentioned there might be scientific evidence behind this little thing. Apparently, it might have been shown that it helps children with ADHD and autism focus. Now, I knew next to nothing about these fidget spinners, I thought they were toys, I wasn't sure what you were supposed to do with them, but now that science was involved, I was interested.

First, let's look at what this thing can do, the pushback against it and, finally, the science behind the claims being made for it.

It's called a fidget spinner and it's meant to be used by people who need to keep their hands busy.

It retails for less than 10$, although some fancier models cost over 100$. This one has LED lights, so you get a light show when you spin it.

For this thing to be so insanely popular, I thought, surely, there must be some cool tricks you can do with it but, after looking on YouTube, I uh... pretty much all you do is compete to see whose spinner spins the longest... and you can also stack 'em and flip the entire column, which mixes the colours up.

That's uh... that's really disappointing. At least Magic: The Gathering required strategy.

Imagine 30 of these things being spun at once in a classroom. Exactly. A number of schools have banned them, schools in the US, in Abu Dhabi, in England. CBS News reported that a survey of the 200 largest schools in the US found that 32% of them have banned this toy, although their source is "Spinner List", which appears to be a database of fidget spinners, so I don't know how trustworthy that survey is. But these spinners were certainly getting on the nerves of the music teacher I spoke to last weekend.

If these were just toys, I wouldn't be making this video, but these toys come with claims. From one seller on Amazon, "Great Toy For Fidgeters, Anxiety, Focusing, ADHD, Autism, Quitting Bad Habits, Staying Awake. Bring out that creative genius lying deep within you by increasing your concentration any time. The 360 Spinner helps you find new perspectives as you put your brain to use, whether studying, brainstorming, researching, etc. Ideal for people trying to quite nail biting, smoking, leg shaking and all type of attention disorder issues."

To be making such clear claims, the fidget spinner would need to have been studied in a research context, preferably by more than one group of scientists, and for those results to have been published. A cursory look at PubMed and Google Scholar shows no peer-reviewed publications on the fidget spinner, and you know why? Research takes time. While the exact origin of these spinners is controversial, their popularity rose dramatically only in the last few months. So, as far as I can tell, they have never been studied in a scientific context, so these claims simply cannot be made, as there is no good evidence to back them up.

Let me repeat this: I have found zero research into fidget spinners.

What we get from reading about these spinners online is a lot of anecdotes.

Here's what the parent of a child with ADHD and Asperger's, and a special needs teacher herself, had to say, "I thought these would be just another gimmick but, strangely enough, [the spinner] seems to relax him. If he's having some sensory overload, he will just sit and spin them rather than have a meltdown. If he's reading, he will spin the toy and actually comprehend the material better."

One parent I read about said her daughter with autism was happy to see her non-autistic classmates get on the fidgeting bandwagon. Her fidgeting tools marked her as different, but now everyone around her is fidgeting with these cool toys, so she's one of the gang. Other parents of special needs children had the opposite reaction, that these are not toys but tools that can benefit specific children, but if 30 students start spinning them in class, they'll get banned, and the kids who would've benefitted from them will lose them.

Since the spinners themselves haven't been studied, I was wondering what the literature had to say on whether or not fidgeting can benefit children with a condition like ADHD. Because if something similar to a spinner has been shown to help, we may be able to infer that the spinners could help. There would be a plausible mechanism of action.

 What I found scanning the literature on ADHD is mixed. There is relatively new and limited literature looking at aerobic exercise and ADHD. Results so far suggest that it has the potential to improve the symptoms of ADHD, but aerobic physical activity is not the same as fidgeting. Also, given that we know that exercising improves practically everything, these early results are not surprising.

Moving away from exercise per se, hyperactivity, which is the "H" in ADHD, has often been perceived as having a negative impact on the child, but there are researchers who are challenging this model, showing preliminary evidence that hyperactivity may be good. They are saying that hyperactive movements may be an unconscious effort by the child to increase its arousal. This increased arousal would help the child deal with tasks that are highly demanding, like learning in class. Children with ADHD would need this increased arousal to focus, whereas kids without ADHD are already receiving enough stimulation, so that increasing it actually has a negative impact on their focus.

However, I'm not sure that flicking movements are large enough to qualify as "excess gross motor activity", which is the type of movement that has been studied and that some researchers are saying may help kids with ADHD concentrate better. Moreover, it's been observed that fidget spinners are a visual distraction: they seem designed to be looked at while they spin. That's why they're available in different colours, prints, materials, and lighting patterns.

The bottom line for me is that a) there is currently no scientific evidence behind the claims made for fidget spinners and b) these spinners are unlikely to be useful for children with ADHD in a class setting, since they are loud and visually distracting. That being said, if you have a child with ADHD and you want to spend a few dollars on one of these things to see if it can help at home, there is anecdotal evidence that it may prove beneficial. But don't be surprised if your child isn't allowed to flick one of these in class.