These days, you can’t pop into the gas station or stop by a Target without seeing multiple sizes, colors and designs of last year’s “it” toy – fidget spinners.
The ball-bearing-powered trinket burst onto the scene last spring and quickly became popular everywhere from classrooms to cubicles with its claims of helping spinners concentrate and stress less.
While those assertions are still up for debate, one thing is certain – the fidget spinner craze has brought renewed attention to the usefulness of an array of other fidget items that parents and professionals who work with children with sensory processing issues are familiar with.
“[Educators] have a long history of really drilling down and using evidence-based practice to address the needs of each child. Using tools, like fidgets, among other things, really helps [kids] regulate their own bodies,” says Ann H. Sweet, a board-certified behavior analyst and autism consultant with Carmel Clay Schools.
Could your child benefit from a fidget spinner, squishy ball or bouncy chair? Sweet, along with local parents, offer these tips for those considering fidget items.
1) Start with rules in place.
For students with sensory processing issues, including many on the autism spectrum, the need for constant sensory input can make it difficult for them to concentrate. Fidget items, such as stress balls, putty and pipe cleaners, are often used to provide this sensory input in a less distracting way.
The key, Sweet says, is to set ground rules from the beginning about the purpose of a fidget.
“When you introduce an item, use a social narrative to explain how the item should help them focus and pay attention, how it shouldn’t distract others and shouldn’t distract them from learning,” Sweet says. “A fidget should be used as a tool, not a toy, and having those guidelines from the beginning can help.”
2) Consider your child’s age and needs.
A desirable fidget will vary from child to child. Younger kids tend to like things they can squeeze, like stress balls, while older kids may want something more inconspicuous, such as a paperclip or a smooth river rock, Sweet says.
In general, the best fidgets are silent, can’t be taken apart into pieces and don’t easily roll away. And while there are plenty of websites that sell fidgets specifically designed for kids with special needs, everyday items such as pencil toppers, silly putty or nuts and bolts can be effective, too.
One caution – if your child likes to put things in his or her mouth, make sure fidgets aren’t small enough to be swallowed. Instead, look for chewable necklaces or ask if your child can chew gum in class. “We’re big fans of gum,” says Lori Fulk, a Zionsville mom of a 12-year-old with ADHD and dyscalculia. “My daughter has been chewing gum in math class to help her focus since she was 6. While her ADHD meds are very successful, just that extra help in math has been a great tool.”
3) Look at other movement options.
Beyond fidgets, more and more schools are experimenting with items that allow students to move in other ways – wiggle seats, yoga balls or bouncy bands for desk legs.
Cathy Willman, a Brownsburg mom of a 12-year-old with autism, says her son likes to sit on an exercise ball. “I thought that worked best to keep his body moving while allowing his brain to work,” she says.
4) Talk to your child’s teacher and school team.
Most importantly, talk first with your child’s teacher and school resource team to see what fidgets may be already available and what they think could help your child. “Find out what’s being used in the classroom and how it’s working,” Sweet says. “I recommend working with an occupational therapist who knows the child’s sensory needs, too.”
To learn more about sensory integration, check out the Indiana Resource Center for Autism’s comprehensive article on the subject at www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Sensory-Integration-Tips-to-Consider.