All The Wrong People Are Asking All The Wrong Questions About Fidget Spinners

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Why is nobody talking to people who have the disabilities these were originally designed to solve?

I n case you hadn’t heard, there’s a hot new trend taking over the nation’s youth: the fidget spinner, a three-pronged piece of plastic that looks like cross between a Beyblade and a 45 RPM record insert and spins around a central core when you flick the blades.

There is also an even hotter trend compelling the nation’s not-so-young. In outlets across the country, people are gazing into their own navels and then banging out a bunch of angry words alleging that fidget spinners are annoying/disrupting classrooms/ruining everything/bringing about the apocalypse/providing the perfect symbol of Trump’s America.

So far, the loudest (and often only) voices talking about fidget spinners have been coming from neurotypicals. And, as usual, this almost uniformly NT perspective is focusing on the wrong things, asking the wrong questions, and erasing neurodivergent people from the conversation by ignoring our arguments, dismissing our concerns, and valuing our potential “productivity” over our feelings — or even our humanity.

So far, the loudest (and often only) voices talking about fidget spinners have been coming from neurotypicals.

As far as I can tell, the fidget spinner phenomenon has hit such a massive nerve with the neurotypical adult population because it combines two major sources of anxiety in our society: the fear of aging and irrelevance, and the mistrust of disabled people. Anything that appears to give kids joy at a level that older people are no longer capable of feeling tends to be derided in the media; think boy bands, or bottle flipping. But with fidget spinners in particular, there’s another layer to the disdain. The gadgets have been marketed as a tool that can help autistics and people with anxiety and ADHD focus and self-soothe, which taps into abled people’s seemingly unflagging fear that the rest of us are getting some sort of special treatment that they aren’t — and that we might be faking or exaggerating our needs to do so. That means the fidget spinner must be treated with suspicion.

As a 35-year-old with no children (yet?) I don’t feel qualified to comment on the first issue, other than to say that I grew up watching my parents weather everything from Cabbage Patch Kids to snap bracelets with grace and I see no reason I shouldn’t follow their example now. I also don’t feel it’s within my purview to discuss their presence in classrooms. As an autistic person with chronic anxiety, though, I’m still waiting for a single neurotypical to recognize that fidget spinners aren’t their business, either.

With very few exceptions — most notably DNAinfo’s Amy Zimmer, who recently interviewed autistic entrepreneur Shira Mechanic about the trend and her own line of fidget tools — few journalists have reached out to neurodivergent people for comment in their stories. As far as I know, no major outlet has published any work by a neurodivergent person on the topic. Neurotypicals have conducted the entire conversation surrounding the efficacy of fidget spinners without ever stopping to consider that the people these tools claim to help should maybe be participants in the discussion — and without much awareness that we might even be listening. (A template for teachers leading school debates on the spinners that’s been floating around online includes the question “Fidget spinners were originally invented to help kids with ADHD and Autism. Why do you think fidget spinners would be helpful for those kids?” as if those kids couldn’t possibly be in these classrooms.)

The exclusion of any and all of our voices from the Great Fidget Spinner Think Piece Trend of ’17 doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Neurotypicals aren’t always great at remembering that we’re real people; they tend to treat us as objects as opposed to subjects in stories that are ostensibly about us. Autistic people, in particular, are often portrayed as vaguely human-like aliens, while our parents, caregivers, and medical professionals are cast as our Dian Fosseys. But even if it doesn’t surprise me, this constant exclusion does exhaust and infuriate me as a neurodivergent human being, as a writer, and as a reader.

The way this debate is playing out harms autistic people. Positioning ADHD and autism experts, teachers, and occasionally parents as the sole voices of authority on the subject perpetuates the idea that neurodivergent people either don’t understand our own needs or can’t be trusted to accurately represent them, or some combination of the two. The desire to find scientific data to either prove or disprove the therapeutic potential of fidget spinners can also be a sore spot for autistic people. It likely comes from a well-meaning place; it’s part of a journalist’s job to seek those kind of sources, after all, and quacks hawking useless and sometimes dangerous products are a genuine concern for our community. But science has a lousy track record when it comes to including and valuing autistic perspectives in autism research, which means that the data about us is incomplete at best. Valuing scientists’ reports, made without our input, over our own experience further fuels the notion that we can’t be experts on our own lives.

Valuing scientists’ reports over our own experience fuels the notion that we can’t be experts on our own lives.

And the current conversation hurts neurotypical people, too, because it’s denying everyone more complex, thorough, and thoughtful perspectives on the matter. While NTs have been churning out tepid introductory pieces, lukewarm assessments from experts, sneering ironic test runs of the product, crankily dismissive takedowns, and the occasional shrugging endorsement — the usual run of Hot Takes, in other words — neurodivergent people have blogging and tweeting critical counterpoints, challenging alternate perspectives, and just plain better content. Like Aiyana Bailin’s piece for The Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism that asks why fidgeting has become an at least somewhat acceptable activity now that allistic people have embraced it, when autistics have always been punished and abused for stimming. Or Twitter user Taylewed’s wry and incisive thread on the mistrust of disabled voices (“Why do product testimonials suddenly mean nothing when they’re coming from disabled people? People don’t see a Yelp score and say ‘Yeah but there’s a distinct lack of peer reviewed research on Olive Garden.’). Or autistic artist Tracey Rolandelli summing it up in one tweet by asking “Why is it ok for Neurotypical people to create billion $ industry for relaxation products & massages, but autistics shouldn’t stim?”

In the interest of thoroughness, I picked up a fidget spinner of my own last week and have been testing it out since then. My particular model, which gives you the option of smacking it against something and setting off a bunch of flashing LED lights, clearly wasn’t made with autistic people in mind, given our sensory issues and the high correlation of autism and epilepsy. But even if this particular spinner wasn’t made for people like me, I can see how our use of it could be effective. When it comes to stims, I’m far more of a necklace and hair-twirler and a foot-shaker myself, but even I could feel a certain grounding quality to the way the core rattled in my hand as the blades spun.

I could feel a certain grounding quality to the way the core rattled in my hand as the blades spun.

I’ve also talked to other neurodivergent people about spinners, and received a range of responses, from true believers to people who could see themselves getting too distracted by playing with one (based on my limited sample size, I noticed the latter opinion was a little more common for people with ADHD). This is to be expected given that, you know, we are individual human beings with our own needs and concerns. Based on my anecdotal evidence, I’d say that I’m at least mildly convinced that the fidget spinner has a use beyond novelty and signaling the downfall of society.

Using my own fidget spinner did leave me even more convinced about one thing, though: voices like mine are even more important to the conversation than I’d originally believed. It’s not just that neurotypicals are making biased assumptions in their speculation on the topic. Their neurology and their lived experiences leave them woefully unequipped to ask the right questions.

It’s not just that neurotypicals are making biased assumptions. Their neurology leaves them woefully unequipped to ask the right questions.

A common complaint in assessments of the gadget is that the spinning action is too passive to facilitate the physical movements that come with fidgeting. You simply flick the blades and let it go. Which is probably a logical conclusion if you’re a casual or uninitiated fidgeter. Autistic people have been stimming since birth, though, and it likely wouldn’t occur to most of us to pick up one of these suckers and just watch it spin. We’re going to tip it, move it around shift it side to side in our fingertips, or even rotate the entire contraption over and over again in our palms, all of which have the potential to calm us, help us self-regulate, and, yes, even focus. Likewise, the concern that spinners will distract kids in the classroom because people tend to look at them while they’re spinning is really only an issue if you believe that looking at something (or in someone’s eyes) is a necessary component of focus. For a lot of autistic people, including myself, it’s a lot easier to concentrate on what a person’s saying when I’m not looking at them. Staring at a fidget spinner might actually make it easier for me to actively listen.

And neurotypical people don’t think to remark on the fact that, in a society where the worth of disabled people almost always seems to be tied to our productivity, it’s the tool’s potential focus-improving abilities have been receiving the bulk of the attention. Is the fidget spinner really a sham if it doesn’t make someone a better worker? What if it makes someone feel better, or calmer, or even amused for a brief moment? Are those not benefits that neurodivergent people should get to enjoy in life?

Is the fidget spinner really a sham if it doesn’t make someone a better worker? What if it makes someone feel better, or calmer, or even amused?

My fidget spinner has not helped my almost comically labored writing process. It did not make this particular story flow any better or come out any faster. I still procrastinated. I watched multiple episodes of television, read a few chapters of a book, checked on the shipping status of an online order approximately 6000 times, and flopped all over my couch like I was impersonating Morrissey when I should have been dutifully sitting at my computer and typing these words. But somewhere in all of that flouncing and avoidance, I did play with the thing. And, in those random moments, I think I did relax a little. My chest never tightened, my heart rate didn’t increase, and I didn’t start crying, all of which are common occurrences when I’m writing.

I can’t guarantee that my relative calm was a direct result of the spinning, and I definitely can’t offer you any empirical evidence on the matter. Hell, maybe it was just the rush of engaging in a tiny act of rebellion that annoys neurotypicals that actually did it for me. All I can tell you is that I, as an anxious autistic woman, used a fidget spinner and felt a little better. If that outcome and that testimony mean nothing to the debate, then we might have an issue a lot bigger than kids playing with a trendy new toy.

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