Fidgeting, Spinning, and Normalising Stimming

The latest craze to hit the classrooms of the world is what’s called a fidget spinner. In case this is news to you, this is a thing on bearings that you can hold between your thumb and finger, or balance on something, and it spins for ages after you flick it.

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This has proven remarkably controversial for something so innocuous. The thing is that it’s a kind of stimtoy. You stim with it. You see, some people find that self-stimulation, or stimming, helps them to focus, to deal with over-stimulation and anxiety. In particular, we’re talking about autistic people here — ‘stimming’ is a term widely used in the autistic community, and so far little known outside it, although it seems to be something that people with ADHD also do quite a lot.

Stimming has never been something that only autistic or other otherwise neurodivergent people do; fidgeting is one way of stimming, and many relatively neurotypical people also do things like biting their nails, playing with their keys or tapping their feet, especially when they’re stressed out. The difference with autistic people is largely a question of scale — we tend to have much stronger urges to stim, more of the time, and we often use more of our bodies to do it. It costs us much more to stay still. This is why flapping and rocking are more common in the autistic population than elsewhere, and why there’s a substantial market for stimtoys especially for the autistic community.

Beyond a certain (ill-defined) point, stimming ceases to be socially acceptable. Kids are often told off for fidgeting, and kids with neurological differences like autism have often been harshly punished for stimming too obviously. This is starting to happen less, as more teachers and other professionals realise that stimming is an incredibly important outlet for autistic people, often preventing overwhelm, and that trying to stop it can be seriously damaging. Stimtoys help us stim, often in ways that are relatively discreet; in a way, stimtools would be a better name. They are a pretty important part of autistic culture.

Which is why the recent rash of articles dismissing the benefits of fidget spinners, on the basis that there’s no strong scientific evidence that they help, has been immensely irritating. Typically the authors of these articles don’t think to talk to anyone autistic or otherwise neurodivergent about their experiences, and the word ‘stimming’ is almost never even mentioned.

There’s a principle in disability rights activism, nothing about us without us. It’s a simple idea. Not always easy to apply in practice, but always important to bear in mind. If you’re writing about something that affects the lives of millions of people with a known disability, at least try to talk to some of us first. We are not particularly hard to find.

For me as a science teacher, there’s another thing that really grates in these articles, and that’s the way they use science. Scientific evidence is outstandingly important; there are few other types of evidence that can stand up in the face of rigorous scientific research that contradicts them. However, it’s not the only kind of evidence. The notion it’s the only kind that matters is called ‘scientism’, and there are good reasons why it’s generally considered a mistake.

We don’t wait for scientific studies before ruling in criminal cases, or before deciding if somebody is sincere in their affections. So why would anyone dismiss it when people with different neurology from themselves insist that something helps or harms them? It’s not like there have been any scientific studies to show that fidgeting with spinners doesn’t help.

I’ve also seen it argued that spinners aren’t proper fidget toys, because much of the time you’re just holding it while it spins, rather than actively fidgeting. I’ve got a bit more time for this argument — I personally don’t find spinners anywhere near as satisfying to stim with as Tangles, for example, which are also much quieter — but it misses the fact that for some people visual stims are important, and the fact that you can get some really pleasing gyroscopic action by gently rocking them while they spin, so that they deflect to one side. The point is that there are lots of ways to stim, and just because you don’t get how something helps someone, doesn’t mean it doesn’t.

So different people benefit from different stimtoys to different degrees. Their sudden popularity in more neurotypical circles has big effects on people who rely on stimming to cope with anxiety and overwhelm — for whom the availability of stimtoys is an accessibility issue.

For one thing, many schools have banned spinners outright, because they were proving disruptive. Having taught classes where several kids had spinners on the go, this strikes me as an overreaction, but an understandable one. Yes, they can be distracting, sometimes to kids other than the ones spinning them; they’re rarely silent, seeing the spinning in your peripheral vision can throw a person off-track, and sometimes kids show off to each other with them. It’s a pretty minor thing in my experience, but maybe I’ve been lucky, and I can see how it could get annoying. Many teachers struggle to work out when it’s okay for kids to fidget, doodle or otherwise do things other than what we’ve told them to do. All of these things can help kids focus sometimes — adults, too, of course — but at other times they get sucked in and forget all about what they were supposed to be doing. Too many teachers err on the side of trying to prevent these things altogether, I think, which disadvantages people who really do need to stim in order to cope.

Then there is the rash of anti-spinner articles I mentioned earlier, many of them dismissing the whole idea of fidget toys, some of them insisting the phenomenon as a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the modern world. This kind of backlash is obviously harmful to people whose mental health depends on outlets that are already seen as absurd or juvenile far too often — like fidgeting, and stimming more generally.

There are up-sides, though. Suddenly fidget toys are all over the place, cheap and easy to find! Doubtless many more people who can benefit from such things will become aware of the difference they can make. Despite the backlash, the overall effect of this trend must surely help to normalise stimming, and that’s a vitally important part of normalising autistic behaviour, so that there’s less pressure to normalise individual autistic people. It always feels a bit weird when people adopt something with little understanding of its background, when they can’t possibly appreciate it in the same way; but that’s not inherently a bad thing. The fact that it takes neurotypical, abled people picking something up to normalise it says something interesting and rather depressing about power dynamics in our society, but I’ll take it all the same.

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