05/04/2017 11:27 EDT | Updated 05/04/2017 11:27 EDT

Spinning Fidget Toys Have Some ADHD Experts Reeling

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Rear view of large group of school children raising their hands ready to answer the question. Focus is on girl in striped shirt.

In case you haven't noticed, a small gadget called the spinner fidget toy is getting a whole lot of attention. Ironically, it's supposed to be doing exactly the opposite. The spinner has three prongs that radiate from a central ball bearing. When the centre is pinched, the prongs can be coaxed into a mesmerizing spin that can last for as long as your skill level will allow. Spinner toys come in all kinds of colours, are priced between five and ten dollars, and are perfect for spinning and swapping.

As an adult, I can see the appeal of gadgets -- my smartphone has many. And I'm not so out of touch that I can't recognize child-friendly fun when I see it! These spinners look like great entertainment, truly, which should be the hallmark of any good toy. But as a psychiatrist diagnosing and treating ADHD in children and adolescents, it's the marketing spin that has me, and some of my colleagues, reeling.

Spinners are being touted as more than toys.

If the hype is to be believed, they are fidget toys -- toys that enhance focus during cognitively demanding tasks. Fidget toys have specific meaning in clinical circles. They are regarded as nonmedical interventions that provide just the right amount of arousal to keep the brain engaged, but on something other than the toy itself. Fidget toys -- if they are doing their job -- enhance focus on work, while just plain toys focus attention on play.

When I speak with children and adolescents with ADHD in my practice, many fidget. It's not surprising to see a teen tearing the label from a water bottle, or picking at the edge of the table as we speak. It's tempting to assume these patients are distracted as they fidget, rather than listening intently. At times, parents will request more focus and less fidgeting--and teens will typically respond with, "I'm listening!" or "I don't even know I'm doing it!"

For many individuals with ADHD, movement enhances focus. But the key to an effective fidget toy, whether it's squeezing a stress ball or peeling the label from a water bottle, is that engagement with the item happens largely without awareness, as focus lands elsewhere. With spinners, the focus seems to be landing on spinners, and that makes them distractions, not tools.

In ADHD, attention is easily thwarted by distractions. A text message, the honk of a horn, a background conversation -- all can pull a brain with ADHD away from the task at hand. And when attention is pulled by something far more entertaining, it's tough to re-focus and get work done. Effective fidget toys are tools, not toys with bells and whistles that entertain and delight. They enhance focus by fading in the background, not by spinning in the spotlight.

So, here's my clinical spin. Spinners don't enhance focus. They demand it. Even a cursory search on the internet proves the point. YouTube videos show spinning experts performing all kinds of tricks with this wildly popular gadget. Try spinning it on a pencil! Try spinning it your nose! Try throwing your spinner from one hand to the other! These tricks go beyond mindless spinning. They require intense focus and dedicated practice. It's only a matter of time, I suspect, before Spinner Competitions emerge. It might not take 10,000 hours to become a spinning expert, but a good chunk of time and practice will probably earn a child some serious playground popularity.

Schools are banning spinners in classrooms, and this makes sense from a learning and focus perspective. Fidget toys should not be distracting for the students using them, or for other students around them. But to ban all fidget toys from the classroom would be a mistake, placing children with ADHD at a significant disadvantage.

An assessment from a clinician experienced in ADHD is the first step in determining what kinds of fidget toys would be most appropriate for a student with attention difficulties. Fidget toys deserve a positive spin as effective tools for supporting focus. But the spinner fidget toy needs some serious rebranding from an ADHD perspective. Quite simply, it's a cool tool for fun, not focus.

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