Everything You Need to Know About Fidget Toys for ADHD & Anxiety

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

sensory fidget toys ADHD autism

originally written and published on Harkla.co

While Fidget Spinners are all the craze right now, many people don’t realize that fidget toys are not just a passing fad! There is much more to this “trend” than fidget spinner challenges, games, and collections -- people who rely on fidget tools to focus and regulate know this all to be true.

In a 2015 study published by the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, hyperactive movements associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder were found to help people focus better. Another study published in the Journal of Child Neuropsychology, found that, since hyperactivity is a natural state for children with ADHD, preventing them from fidgeting actually became a distraction and children were better able to learn when allowed to fidget.

So before you remind your child for the tenth time to sit still at your next family meal, consider whether they are moving to support learning, interacting, and/or focusing. If that is the case, you may find this article on fidget toys to be a good way to shape your child’s hyperactive behavior into something more appropriate.

Focusing, Regulating, and Fidgeting Through It All

When children are younger, they are just beginning to develop self-regulation skills that help them process their environments without getting overwhelmed. Parents provide children with the necessary tools to help kids manage the sensory processing skills, emotional regulation skills, and social skills needed to develop at this stage. Maybe it’s a favorite blanket to calm down for nap, a pacifier to stop the crying, or a long hug to dry the tears. Whatever the parenting strategy, the reasons for supporting your child are the same: you are facilitating their development and ability to regulate as little beings. Eventually, children adopt those strategies as tools in their own “self-regulation toolbox” and they come to use them without their parents’ help. As time goes on, those tools evolve with your child until they grow up to be adolescents with more refined self-regulation skills.

By the time we’re all adults, we have developed more automatic, inconspicuous, self-regulation strategies that allow us to pay better attention during that tedious business meeting or de-stress in the middle of an anxiety-producing doctor’s appointment. If you’re adept at keeping these movements subtle, you may find yourself doing something repetitive like foot tapping, hair twirling, fingernail flicking, key twirling, pen cap clicking, or pencil tapping to help you stay alert. We may not even be aware that we are engaging in one of these strategies until someone draws our attention to it!

Some people with sensory processing dysfunction, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or autism find that fidget toys offer the tactile sensory input and repetitive motor movements that are needed to help them with self-regulation. For whatever reasons, their bodies and brains require a fidget toy to sufficiently meet their needs.

Focusing, Regulating, and Fidgeting Through it All

A fidget or fidget toy is an object that aids with focus and attention by allowing the brain to filter extraneous sensory information. By keeping the hands engaged in simple, repetitive motor movements, the user is able to “tune out” what would otherwise be distracting -- lights, sounds, smells, movement, close proximity to other people. Sometimes, these distractions become too overwhelming. If you read our article on Preventing Tantrums and Meltdowns, one of the suggestions we made was to offer a tactile fidget to help combat sensory overstimulation. This is a common use for people who have anxiety because it offers a way to self-soothe in predictable, rhythmic motor patterns that are calming.

For some users, fidget toys provide needed sensory input in a less distracting or socially stigmatizing way. Clicking noises, flashing lights, textures, and aromatherapy additions to fidget toys can offer customized sensory input that users otherwise seek out.

These fidgets can be handheld, kept on a keyring, attached to the end of a pencil, or subtly kept in your pocket. Some fidgets are household items that people gravitate towards holding, pulling, pushing, or sliding, while others are specifically designed toys for fidgeting. No matter what you choose, or how much you invest in your fidget tool, it’s important to keep in mind that fidgets are meant to aid concentration, not to distract users.

What to Consider When Choosing a Fidget

There’s a lot to consider when choosing your fidget toy. Sometimes, more isn’t always better though. Keeping the tool simple enough to meet your fidget needs will prevent the tool itself from becoming a distraction. For example, while the Pikachu-themed fidget spinner with flashing lights and chrome metal may seem like a super cool solution, it may be used as a toy instead of the tool you intend for it to be for your 9-year old Pokemon fanatic!

Here are some general guidelines to think about when choosing a fidget:

Cost - keep it no- or low-cost if you anticipate needing to replace your fidget often! We’ve listed a number of no-cost or low-cost solutions that won’t leave you maxxing out your credit card to replace fidget #5!

Consider materials that are durable if your fidget toy is going to get a lot of use (and cost money!). If you’re going to make an investment, you want it to last!

Along the lines of considering the materials, think about the textures - bumpy, squishy, hard, soft, rough, smooth? It’s a matter of preference for the user.

What motor movement(s) does the fidget allow for? What does your child like? Flicking, flapping, shaking, eye angling, squeezing, pulling? There are fidget toys for a plethora of motor movements so know what your child wants to do with it.

When, where, and how will your fidget be put to use? Identifying how often you’ll need to use the fidget (and where) will help you know whether you should be looking for a wearable solution versus one that can attach to a keyring, be school-approved, or home-use-only.

Noises, smells, and lights, oh my! Believe it or not, you can get a fidget customized with aromatherapy scents. The addition of noise, smell, and light adds sensory input that some users may need, but to others it may be overwhelming and unnecessary.

No Cost Fidget Ideas

If you’re lucky, your fidget needs will be met by a free or no-cost household item that is easily found and easily replaced! Here are some commonly favored free fidgets:

  • Bendable plastic straw (or sometimes just the wrapper!)

  • Paperclip

  • Hair scrunchie or elastic

  • Pen/pencil - bonus if it has a pen cap

  • Pipe cleaners

  • Shoelace (straight or curly/elastic)

  • Worry stone

The DIY fidget possibilities are limitless! Check out Adapt & Learn’s Pinterest Page for some easy DIYs that put your junk drawer contents to good use!

Some Cost Fidget Toys

Great websites that specialize in fidget products offer a multitude of options depending on user preferences. Check out Fidget Club and Focusfied for more opti