Fidget toys are small, handheld objects designed to be manipulated by the user. Originally conceived as novelty items, these toys are gaining attention for their potential therapeutic benefits for certain disorders related to anxiety, compulsions, and trouble with focus and attention. While not clinical treatment, fidget toys may help complement evidence-based therapies and medication for some neuropsychiatric conditions.
Here are some key disorders and conditions fidget toys may aid in treatment:
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by difficulty concentrating, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Individuals with ADHD often fidget as a self-stimulating behavior when restless or distracted. Providing a fidget outlet may help kids with ADHD release pent-up energy and self-regulate, enabling better focus on schoolwork. One study found schoolchildren with ADHD answered more questions correctly when using a fidget spinner during a test.
Many children with autism engage in repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors like hand flapping, head banging, or vocal tics. Fidget toys can give their hands and bodies an acceptable and quieter outlet for this sensory feedback. Simple fidgets like chewy pendants or snap bracelets provide stimulation without overloading the senses as electronic toys might. The toys may help autistic kids sit and focus for longer periods and transition between tasks.
Individuals with diagnosed anxiety disorders often feel restless, tense, and mentally distracted. Fidget toys can serve as effective tools for relieving nervous energy and diverting obsessive worrying. Anxiety is characterized by fear and unease; having a tactile outlet one can manipulate to self-soothe has a calming effect. Studies show activities like clicking a pen or squeezing a stress ball before an anxious event reduces anxiety and improves focus.
Obsessive compulsive disorder involves repetitive behaviors or mental rituals driven by intrusive thoughts. Fidget toys may help satisfy the urge to pick, tap, count, touch or repeat as a substitute for unhealthy compulsions like hair pulling, skin picking, or reorganizing. Managing energy and anxiety through subtle fidgeting could potentially curb OCD symptoms. However, care should be taken to not replace one compulsive habit with another.
Some studies have explored using fidget toys to help smokers quit by providing oral and tactile stimulation to mimic the habitual hand-to-mouth motion of smoking and manage nicotine cravings. One study gave participants clicky pens and handheld puzzles to use during their quit attempt, finding it reduced cravings and feelings of withdrawal. Fidget toys may provide smokers an alternate oral fixation and distraction.
Fidget tools like activity blankets with zippers, snaps, and tactile elements may help engage and stimulate the senses for those with dementia who experience restlessness or agitation. The activities give their hands something to do and help provide a calming rhythm. Textured, weighted sensory aids can also help reduce anxiety.
While not clinically proven, some individuals with Tourette’s report that having a fidget toy helps redirect their tics into more subtle, less disruptive motions. Manipulating something in the hands may help displace muscle spasms and urges to twitch, shrug, blink or vocalize. Fidget toys offer an acceptable way to expend the nervous energy.
It’s important to note that fidget toys are not intended as standalone therapy for any disorder. Rather, they serve as a supplemental self-regulation tool that can complement expert-recommended treatments and medication. Individuals should monitor if their fidgeting centers more on a repetitive behavior versus calming aid, and discuss use with a doctor.
With the rise of fidget toys, more mental health and education specialists have begun incorporating them into treatment plans. Teachers often allow students with focus or behavioral issues like ADHD to keep a fidget toy on hand to channel energy. Therapists may recommend patients try using fidgets to manage anxiety and OCD rituals. Exploring different textures and types of fidgets as part of therapy could help identify sensory experiences most soothing for the individual. Just having an outlet for restless hands and minds may be enough to help many disorders. While more research is still needed, fidget toys show real promise in aiding focus, calm, and symptom relief in a variety of psychiatric conditions. At little cost or risk when used judiciously, fidget toys could make effective additions to treatment regimens.