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Are Fidget Cubes Helpful for People with Autism?

Fidget cubes have surged in popularity in recent years as a tool to help people focus, relieve stress, and manage restless energy. The small palm-sized cubes have buttons, switches, and sides that can be clicked, spun, flipped, slid, and rolled. While initially marketed towards individuals with ADD/ADHD, fidget cubes have also gained attention within the autism community. Many parents, teachers, and supporters of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have begun recommending fidget cubes to help manage symptoms. But is there evidence that fidget cubes are actually beneficial for individuals with autism? Let’s take an objective look at the potential pros and cons.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition characterized by challenges with communication, social interaction, restrictive/repetitive behaviors, and sensory processing differences. Every person with autism is unique, but many struggle with restlessness, fidgeting, concentration issues, and managing emotional regulation. These symptoms can make it very difficult for autistic children and adults to succeed in school, work, and community environments.

Traditional therapies for autism aim to improve social skills, language, flexible thinking, emotional regulation, and coping strategies through applied behavior analysis, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and more. However, finding tools to help immediately calm restlessness and improve focus continues to be a challenge. Some parents, teachers, and autistic self-advocates believe fidget cubes may offer such a tool.

The rationale is that the tactile stimulation and “sensory diet” provided by fidget cubes can help autistic individuals channel excess energy, satisfy sensory cravings, and practice emotional self-regulation. Manipulating the fidget cube gives the hands and mind something to occupy themselves with, which may decrease restless behaviors like hand flapping, improve ability to sit still, and help individuals pay better attention or feel more grounded. The underlying theory around meeting sensory needs is very similar to why fidget cubes are thought to help some people with ADHD focus.

While this rationale makes logical sense, what does the research actually say about fidget cubes for autism? Unfortunately, empirical studies specifically on fidget cubes are extremely limited. Most evidence is anecdotal. Here is a brief summary of findings:

  • In one small 2018 study, teenagers with autism reported lower anxiety and improved mood from using a fidget cube for 5 minutes during a stressful task.
  • A 2020 qualitative study found some teachers and occupational therapists observed reduced restlessness and improved attention in autistic students when allowed to use fidget cubes.
  • Many autistic self-advocates and bloggers report benefits of fidget cubes for helping satisfy sensory cravings and improve ability to focus or calm down when overwhelmed.

However, few if any large-scale, rigorous studies have been conducted. There is not yet solid scientific evidence that fidget cubes improve symptoms or functioning for people with autism spectrum disorder. There are also important limitations to consider:

  • Fidget cubes address sensory cravings but do not teach long-term coping skills. They are just one tool, not a standalone therapy.
  • Benefits seem highly individual based on the person’s needs and differences. What helps one autistic individual may not help another.
  • Too much distraction from fidget cubes could also backfire and harm concentration. Their use should be monitored and tailored to the individual.
  • Safety issues may arise if fidget cubes are mouthed or swallowed, particularly for younger autistic children.

Overall, while many parents and teachers report success with using fidget cubes to help autistic students improve concentration, self-regulation, and sitting tolerance, considerably more research is still needed. Controlled studies have yet to substantiate definitive benefits over just having a “placebo” toy or object to fidget with. If choosing to try fidget cubes for yourself or an autistic child, have realistic expectations and closely monitor their effectiveness. Fidget cubes may provide at least some relief of sensory cravings or restlessness for some individuals but should be just one part of a broader therapy plan to build long-term coping and self-regulation skills. Work closely with occupational therapists, special education staff, and behavior analysts to determine optimal, safe use guidelines tailored to the individual’s needs and differences. There is promise that fidget cubes and toys can help channel restlessness for some people with autism, but more rigorous research is still needed to substantiate their benefits as a supportive tool.