Do Fidget Toys for ADHD Work?

person holding fidget spinner

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder most often diagnosed in childhood and frequently continues into adulthood. The condition causes symptoms related to hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. 

The condition is typically treated with medication and therapy, but other techniques and tools are often used to help people manage their symptoms. Fidget toys for ADHD are one tool that are often marketed as a way of improving attention. They are often marketed specifically to kids with promises to help reduce symptoms of ADHD, autism, and anxiety.

Fidget Toys

Fidget toys are small, handheld objects that can be manipulated with the hands. These devices are intended to aid in self-regulation and help people with ADHD improve their ability to focus and better tolerate feelings of boredom, anxiety, and excitement. 

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is one of the most common developmental conditions in childhood. Children with the condition often have a difficult time paying attention and struggle with managing their behavior. While symptoms differ somewhat for adults, it is common for the disorder to persist into adulthood. 

Other common symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Forgetting and losing things
  • Fidgeting and being unable to sit still
  • Impulsivity and difficulty resisting temptation
  • Talking a lot
  • Difficulty taking turns
  • Problems paying attention 

What Are Fidget Toys?

Fidget toys are devices that are small enough to fit in your hand and allow people to repeatedly manipulate them in various ways. The goal of such toys is to provide a purposeless, movement-based activity. 

The idea behind these toys is that people can direct their energy toward fidgeting with them instead of squirming or moving around. Because this energy is directed toward the toy, the hope is that people can better handle the challenging emotions they might be experiencing, including boredom, frustration, or even excitement.

Fidget spinners were among the first toys to explode in popularity among elementary and middle schoolers, but other fidget toys, from cubes to pop-up bubbles, soon followed. Originally marketed for kids with attention issues, the devices remain popular with kids with and without attention difficulties, often to the consternation of teachers and school administrators.

Many educators have questioned the benefits of such devices and, in some cases, banned them from the classroom.

Types of Fidget Toys

There are a wide variety of fidget toys for ADHD. Some of the most commonly used ones include: 

  • Fidget spinners: These are small, handheld toys that have a central bearing that allows them to spin. Fidget spinners are designed to be spun with one hand, and they can provide a calming sensation for people who fidget with their hands.
  • Fidget cubes: These small cube-shaped toys have a number of different features on each side, such as buttons, dials, and switches. Fidget cubes are designed to be fiddled with the hand, and they can provide a way for people to keep their hands busy without causing any disturbance.
  • Stress balls: These small, squishy balls can be squeezed in the hand. Stress balls are often used to relieve tension and stress, and they can also help keep the hands busy.
  • Pop-it toys: These fidget toys are typically made of silicone that include a tray featuring pokeable bubbles. They are similar in function to bubble wrap but can be flipped over and re-used. They can be found in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors.
  • Sensory toys: There are several different types of sensory toys available, including those that light up, make noise, or vibrate. Sensory toys can provide a way for people to stimulate their senses while also keeping their hands busy.

How Do Fidget Toys Help People With ADHD? 

According to supporters, fidget toys can help people with ADHD to:

  • Increase focus
  • Improve concentration
  • Reduce fidgeting
  • Relieve stress and anxiety
  • Promote calmness and relaxation

Fidget toys have become popular with children and adults, a phenomenon fueled in part by popular online videos that show unboxings, collections, and tricks. But is there any research to back up their purported benefits? Recent research indicates that these toys may not be as beneficial as their marketing suggests. 

The core idea behind the use of fidget toys for ADHD stems from earlier research on the benefits of movement for kids with attention issues. Earlier research indicated that the gross motor movements that kids with ADHD often perform appear to play a role in improving attention to a certain degree. In a 2016 study, researchers found that more intense physical movement was associated with improved performance on a working memory task.

While intriguing, it is a jump to suggest that fidgeting with a small toy might produce the same effects. It’s even more of a leap to suggest that any improvements might impact performance in a classroom setting.

Why might fidgeting improve attention? According to researchers, physical activity—including small hand movements—releases dopamine and norepinephrine. This can lead to improved focus and better attention. 

"It is thought that fidgeting improves performance due to stimulation of the somatosensory cortex of the brain, which are responsible for integrating tactile information from the hands," explained researchers in a 2017 review published in Current Opinion in Pediatrics.

Fidget Toys May Not Be That Effective

While proponents suggest that fidget toys may benefit ADHD and sensory issues, emerging evidence disputes their effectiveness. 

Impact of Fidget Toys on ADHD Symptoms

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that fidget spinners had a negative effect on attention in kids with ADHD. The study found that using a fidget spinner was associated with decreased activity levels in the early stage of the experiment. However, playing with a fidget spinner decreased attention at all experiment phases.

The study suggests that while fidget toys might help reduce symptoms of hyperactivity when first introduced, this behavioral effect fades as the novelty wears off. And this relatively small behavioral benefit is outweighed by the devices' significant detrimental effects on attention.

Another study published in a 2019 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology had college students use fidget spinners while watching educational videos. The results revealed that the students who used the fidget toys while watching the videos did worse on a memory test covering what they had learned.

Potential Risks

Fidget toys may have risks that should be considered. Adverse effects of fidget devices, including the popular fidget spinners, include:

  • Increased distraction and reduced focus: Several of the studies mentioned above have found that fidget toys actually harm attention rather than help.
  • Classroom disruptions affecting both students and teachers: Teachers often report that the toys interrupt academics and waste valuable class time.
  • Social conflict between students: Other students may find the toys irritating or may be jealous that some students get to use them while others don't.
  • Safety concerns: Since the devices are not subject to safety regulations, there have been reports of injuries and hospitalizations related to fidget spinners.

Where to Buy Fidget Toys

Whether fidget toys might help or hurt, the toys remain popular with kids who can’t seem to get enough of the small gadgets that spin, pop, snap, whirl, and squish. The toys may be best utilized as entertainment in non-classroom settings, such as long car rides.

Such tools may have other benefits not necessarily related to attention. One 2018 study, for example, found that fidget spinners might help kids with ADHD improve their fine motor control.

Not all fidget toys are the same, so look for quieter and less distracting gadgets like squeeze balls or moldable putty. Such options allow you or your child to manipulate them without becoming distracted or intruding on others.

Plenty of retailers carry a variety of these devices if you’re interested in trying a fidget toy for entertainment or as a self-regulation tool. Major retailers, including Amazon, Walmart, Target, and Barnes & Noble, carry a variety of fidget toys both online and in-store.

Before purchasing a fidget toy for ADHD, consider factors such as the price, material, safety, and noise level. Some fidget toys may have small parts that pose a choking hazard for young children. Noise level is another concern since some gadgets may make more noise than others.

A Word From Verywell

Fidget toys can allow people with ADHD to fidget with their hands with minimal disturbance. Choose a safe and appropriate toy for your needs, and be sure to purchase from a reputable retailer. Most importantly, remember that these devices are not a substitute for effective treatment, including medication and behavior management strategies.

Fidget toys are not an alternative for evidence-based treatments for ADHD. There is a lack of documented research demonstrating these toys help with ADHD symptoms, so sticking to the things known to work is a better way to help kids and adults with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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