Experts Divided on Whether Fidget Spinners Help Kids With ADHD

By: Alia Hoyt
Fidget spinners are fun to play with but do they have any real medical benefits? Chris Winsor/Getty Images

You can't seem to get away from fidget spinners these days — a device with three paddle-shaped blades around a circle with bearings in the middle. Giving one of the blades a whirl makes the whole thing spin in a pleasing blur, sort of like a pinwheel. In late December 2016, Forbes magazine named the fidget spinner the must-have office toy for 2017. And though it does have a following among adults, it really took off among elementary school kids in April and May of 2017.

Some makers of fidget spinners even claim that the gadgets were designed to help relieve symptoms of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). But is there any truth to that? We talked with some experts to find out.


Fans of Fidgets

Everyone fidgets, but for children and adults with ADHD, it's much harder to control. But is research indicates that being able to move around positively affects cognitive functioning for people with ADHD. "Fidgeting helps children with ADHD concentrate and complete complex mental tasks. The reason people fidget is that they need stimulation," explains clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. John Paul Garrison, of Roswell, Georgia in an email interview. One of his specialties is treating people with anxiety disorders.

"While the gold standard for school is for everyone to sit quietly, it is not the best way for everyone to learn. Clearly, some people can sit without issue, but depending on how you are wired, you may need to be able to get up, move around, or fidget to make your brain work like you want it to. Getting up and walking around while learning may not be realistic in all settings, but using a fidget spinner is far more manageable."


Licensed ADHD counselor Bruce Cameron concurs. "ADHD kids do better if they are doing something physical while reading or in a task," he explains by email. "Playing with the spinner is such a behavior that helps them concentrate on the task at hand."

Cameron runs a marijuana recovery program, and many of the teen participants have ADHD. "They can use the spinners while in group therapy. This allows for more free expression of behavior and has increased the quality of interaction in my groups," he says, also crediting the fidgets with having a calming effect on the group participants.


Foes of Fidgets

Those opinions are all well and good, but what does the research say? Therein lies the problem. Fidget spinners are so newfangled that science hasn't had a chance to catch up with them yet. For many doctors, this lack of hard scientific evidence is an indication that the toys shouldn't be marketed as therapeutically beneficial in any concrete way.

"Value is determined by serious research such as double-blind studies with clinical trials," says Dr. Dilip Karnik, pediatric neurologist at Child Neurology Consultants of Austin. "Thus far, there has been no research presented to support the claim that fidget spinners are therapeutic for those with ADHD. At this time, I would not recommend them as a therapeutic choice."


Clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer is also not impressed, and worries about the ongoing impact of fidget spinners on kids, to boot. "First, even if they have some therapeutic benefit a diversion device like this takes the person away from developing 'compensation techniques' that are necessary for the long-term control of their condition and better functioning," he explains in an email. "Second, by allowing spinners in the classroom and other settings such as activities, clubs, church, what effect do these have on the remainder of the kids? Third, in that same respect, these spinners have disastrous effects on classroom discipline and order."

Rather than focusing on fun handheld toys, Mayer suggests parents instead work with their kids to build lifelong skills that can help them build and maintain focus, like learning drills, better note-taking techniques and memorization aides. Karnik also recommends using occupational therapy techniques, dietary management and yoga to improve attention issues.

Clinical psychologist John Garrison notes that hyperactivity associated with ADHD tends to lessen with age, but adults with ADHD could also find a benefit with using a fidget spinner because of the sensory input. "There is a faint hum as it spins, the visual stimulation of spinning, and the satisfaction and reward of touching the fidget spinner," he says. These benefits may explain why even people without ADHD find them so pleasurable.