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Our Tools, Your Toys: An Autistic with ADHD perspective on the Fidget Spinner Debate

Fidget Spinners

Multiple fidget spinners in different colors

Something…interesting has been happening recently, a phenomenon that shows the effects of when something that is ordinarily meant to be a tool for people of my neurologies becomes a mainstream toy.

But while it’s interesting to someone like myself who likes analyzing cultural changes, it has also become incredibly harmful to my kin, hence writing an article hoping to give some understanding of what these are to us, what the effects of mainstreaming it have been, the pushback against it, and who this actually hurts.

Obviously, I’m talking about fidget spinners.

First off, what exactly are fidgets to us? Fidgets, like the spinner or the fidget cube I have which also has become rather popular but hasn’t seen such an attack, help us focus, as well as providing something to stim with (stimming refers to the things we do to deal with overload and focus [read A Cognitive Defense of Stimming for a more scientific defense for why we should be allowed to do so and the effects that stopping us from doing it have] and also just feels good, all of us have different stims, and everyone does it not just us, things like pencil chewing or doodling in class are the same exact thing…it only becomes a problem when we’re autistic). As you can see, that’s rather important. It’s a multifunction tool that helps us cope with the world, focus on class, and just makes everything easier for both us and the people around us (because it is better for everyone if we can focus and deal with everything better not just us).

We’ve always had stim toys, sometimes just things we pick up (I like messing with a shoelace between my fingers) or more speciality items, like stuff found on Stimtastic. Because they are designed for us specifically, they are much more limited in selection, harder to find, and often more expensive because they can be, and often can only be found online because there isn’t exactly an autistic store chain.

However, fidget spinners changed all of that, and this has had both positive and negative effects.

The positive one is that, much like how the gluten-free fad helped people with celiac disease find food that they could eat easier because suddenly every brand of food capitalized on the fad instead of being a speciality item sold by few, fidget spinners can be bought everywhere in different colors and shapes and prices, which is cool to be able to do.

The negative one is that, much like people with celiac disease ended up being lumped in with people who bought into the fad (the dangers of which can be found in this article), we have been lumped in with those who use it as a toy, and that’s what has caused the huge pushback.

There’s something that is…darkly humorous about something that helps you becoming the center of a nationwide controversy. Reading articles calling it dumb but also a metaphor for 2017, called cigarettes for kids and saying that “it encourages the abdication of thought…at a historical moment when the President has proved himself to be pathologically prone to distraction and incapable of formulating a coherent idea” (imagine having a tool for you called encouraging selfishness and…comparing it to Trump when the neurology the tool was made for is a pre-existing condition under the AHCA…I don’t know whether to get angry or laugh), and seeing Forbes advertise metal ones as the office toy for 2017 when all you really want is society letting you use something that helps you is…unique. But beyond the endless thinkpieces, schools are banning them because they are becoming a distraction to people who aren’t autistic/have ADHD, with some students throwing them and doing other stuff. It doesn’t help that the overall tone of every article completely makes the fact that it extremely helps us just a quick aside before they address how what matters is that it’s actually a huge problem and a passing fad, to where this CNN article just says special needs, a term that, while problematic in itself, in context completely removes who it actually helps from the conversation by being vague instead of specifically mentioning us.

So what’s the net result, who is really getting hurt, and what should we do? Personally, the net result of good and bad isn’t at all easy, as those two aspects of them becoming mainstream are both important from my side. However, it is really hurting us, as bringing them out in any situation even ones that they would help a lot seems like we’re just messing around, and the idea of them being a kid’s toy makes it so it might have a negative effect on adults who use them. I can understand the effects on teachers from neurotypical students using them (before I wrote this article someone asked me what I thought about gatekeeping and saying that only neurodivergent kids should be able to use them ever. To be completely honest, my first snarky thought was, “Well, we’re the only ones who use them right”), but an outright ban seriously stops us from being able to focus as well (what I said before as snark may in reality be the solution in school situations, allowing only us to be able to use them in class settings because we won’t be using them as a distractor), which makes us worse students. I really don’t feel I’m demanding much when I say that our focus should be less dystopian Trump metaphor more helping humans function in a world that is difficult for them based on their neurology, and saying that schools could be a bit less reactionary and more considering of the needs of their students when it comes to these tools. I also have no idea what will happen to the accessibility and availability of these tools if the “fad dies out,” as this is something which has caused such positive and negative effects and I have no idea what the consequences both societal and material would be if the focus goes away.

I have seen the total joy when a friend gets one of these and talking about how much they help them, and my only goal here is to make it so our voices can become part of this conversation, because what everyone considers a toy is actually a tool for us and I don’t think I’m being too selfish when I say I wish that our ability to function was a priority.

 

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