May 8, 2017 by Jeanne Sager
You can’t go far in a school building these days without tripping over a fidget spinner. The small devices are either lifesavers or giant nuisances — depending on who you’re asking — and they’re everywhere. Which is quickly becoming a problem for kids like sixth grader Morgan Cash — kids who truly need a fidget spinner to get through their day-to-day.
If you haven’t already seen one (or 100) in your neighborhood, a fidget spinner is a small, handheld device with paddles that can be spun around — kind of like a ceiling fan. The idea is that someone who suffers from a sensory processing disorder or similar condition will find comfort in fiddling with the device, resulting in a calmer, more focused kid.
“Some kids just need to move in order to self-regulate,” explains Megan Wessman, a physical therapist from upstate New York who works with children with a variety of sensory needs. “Whether that involves a Move ‘n’ Sit cushion, therapy ball chair, a Theraband around the chair legs, or a fidget spinner. It is the same as the person who jiggles their leg when sitting, plays with their hair, or clicks or twirls pens.”
“Scientifically they don’t really know what causes sensory integration dysfunction,” Wessman says, but it’s a very real issue for hundreds of thousands of kids. “Sensory integration dysfunction can be a part of many diagnoses (i.e., ADHD, autism) or be a stand-alone diagnosis.”
Morgan Cash is one of those kids with a verified diagnosis. He’s autistic, and he has what’s called an individualized education plan, or IEP, on file at his northern Virginia school district. IEPs fall under federal special education law, and teachers are required to follow them. In Morgan’s case, that means allowing the 12-year-old to use a fidget toy at school, incorporating it into sensory breaks and classroom time alike.
“He uses the spinner as a tool — not a toy — and as a calming device,” says mom Jessi, who writes about Morgan on her Facebook page, Deciphering Morgan. Using the toys also prevents Morgan from self-injurious behaviors like dermatillomania (skin picking), due to the toy’s gyroscopic effect and the fact that it keeps his hands busy, she says.
Jessi is autistic too, and she uses her own fidget spinner to help with anxiety. “I have Asperger’s and oftentimes will become overwhelmed from noise and unfavorable sensory input,” she explains. “Because I like to balance the spinner on my fingers, I have to be steady and calm. It’s akin to meditation for me.”
But one kid’s comfort object is another kid’s toy.
Like Jessi Cash, Rebecca Plaisance fought to get fidget toys added to her 12-year-old son’s IEP, as they help with his fine motor issues and decramp his hands for writing. But when her Charlotte, North Carolina, school allowed all kids to use fidget toys, she said things went “crazy.” Suddenly everyone — diagnosis or not, IEP or not — had a spinner, and all the kids in her son’s all-boy class were fiddling away with their fingers instead of concentrating on schoolwork.
The rampant usage by kids who don’t have a diagnosed need has led to fidget spinners being banned in classrooms across the country; teachers writing viral blog posts about their misuse and distracting qualities in the classroom; and social media buzzing with parents comparing the devices to other middle school fads like water bottle flipping and slime making.
That’s where moms like Jessi Cash get angry. Her kid’s fidget spinner isn’t a fad or a toy, but when neurotypical kids get hold of the devices and use them as toys, her son’s usage gets lumped into the “distraction” category, too.
After years of fighting tooth and nail for her kid to get the school to address Morgan’s needs in his IEP, Cash finds that seeing kids who don’t have sensory issues using the spinners — and prompting the bans — is frustrating.
“I can see where these are distracting,” she says. “People aren’t used to sensory tools, which is what these are meant for. However, it stings when I hear people calling these things ‘stupid’ or ‘unnecessary’ because it’s simply not like that,” she says.
Finding a way to balance classroom distraction with kids’ very real needs is “tricky,” Wessman admits. But simply banning fidget spinners won’t get to the root of the problem for a kid who’s found success using the device.
“Whatever behavior the fidget was used to correct will come back into play,” she says.
Therein lies the rub … for teachers, for parents, but especially for the kids whose diagnostic tools have become hot, hot, hot. When fidget spinners are treated like toys by their peers and those peers’ parents, their very real needs get brushed aside.
As Jessi Cash says, “My largest hope for this ‘fad’ is that people understand these aren’t toys, they’re tools, and parts of the population genuinely need them.”