“You have a spinner? I have a spinner, too!” says the 10-year-old boy in front of me. We’ve just met him here at the creek, where I’ve brought my sons to catch minnows. With my 3-year-old beside me, I am sitting on a picnic blanket spinning, flicking, stopping, spinning, flicking, stopping the three-pronged thing.
“Yeah, mine is because I have something called ADHD,” I explain. “It helps me concentrate.”
“I have a spinner, too! You wanna trade?”
I shake my head. But he insists that I try his spinner while he tries mine. He offers to trade again. “No,” I tell him, playing regret. “I have to have mine. It stops me from doing things like getting on my phone all the time.”
His laugh echoes under the late-summer sweet gums. “I know the answer to that. Just don’t bring your phone with you!” He scampers off, fidget spinner clutched tight.
If only it were that easy.
I’m a 36-year-old mother of three, and I have four fidget spinners. I try to keep them in convenient places: one on my dresser, one in my purse, two in the living room. These are the places I’m most likely to need to pick them up. I use them for many things — the basic need to fidget, for one.
"Fidgeting science is not the strongest, but initial observations suggest that fidgeting has a purpose and potential benefits," Bruce Y. Lee, an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in a Forbes article in May. One of those purposes and potential benefits, according to Lee, is that fidgeting can be a useful ritual, which is what the fidget spinner has become for me.
Before the spinner, my ritual for coping with being nervous was peeling and picking at my cuticles, a painful but bizarrely comforting habit. Behavioral scientists Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, writing in Scientific American in 2013, said that "even simple rituals can be extremely effective," and "despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome . . . many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective." I've just replaced my picking ritual with a fidget spinner.
I have also found that the spinner helps me focus. It helps me concentrate on the people I’m talking to, for example, not the wallpaper behind them or the mirror to their left. I can think more clearly and assess situations better when I’m twiddling one of the toys. I think ADHD gives me a tendency to lose my temper, and the fidget spinner helps me calm down, giving me a crucial second before I yell at my kids to clean up these toys or they are losing them to the Great Big Black Garbage Bag.
"Fidgeting didn't start with the spinner craze," Katherine Isbister, a professor of computational media at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote on the Conversation, a news and opinion website. "If you've ever clicked a ballpoint pen again and again, you've used a fidget item."
Isbister, who has been collecting information about people and their fidgeting, said that some people report that “fidgeting with an object in the hand helps them to stay focused when doing a long task or sitting still and attentive in a long meeting.”
A long meeting — where a normal person might find it difficult to remain attentive — is the equivalent of a routine conversation for someone with ADHD. We find it difficult to stay focused. A small study done with sixth-grade students using a stress ball found that their attention spans increased when they used the balls and that their achievement improved: They wrote better paragraphs.
I feel less bored if I’ve got a spinner to engage me. When I’m bored, I take out my phone, even when I’m talking with someone right in front of me. And pretty soon I’ve slipped off to eBay or an article on hair care, annoying those around me.
But if I have my spinner, my hands are occupied. It’s easier to put down the phone, pick up the toy and satisfyingly spin, stop, flick, spin, stop, flick.
Because of the spinner, I can have real conversations without my hand itching for my iPhone. It lets me, for the first time, actually watch my kids play in the park instead of pecking away at someone’s Facebook page. I can call out, “Wow, great swing on the bars!” or “Nice slide!” like all the other moms. And my kids hear it, just as all the other kids hear their parents.
Like many with ADHD, I have several comorbid mental health conditions. One of them is anxiety. The fidget spinner calms me down. When I’m worrying, which is almost all the time, it soothes me. When I’m freaking out, the swish and flick, the soft whir, calms me down enough to think more clearly, to break through the intrusive, obsessive thoughts. It’s been a godsend.
It does, however, make me look like a weirdo in public, like one of those adults who never grew up, who remain pathetically into the latest kid fads. I refuse to care what others think. I need this thing.
It’s a lifeline. It’s therapy. I need this support to get things done.
Next time you see someone fiddling with one of these things, please, don’t judge. That spinner may be something more than the latest silly fad.