There are several self-regulation tools used by occupational therapists and even educators in school settings. One such self-regulation tool that has grown in popularity is fidget spinners.
Fidget spinners are small hand-held, often multicolored, rotatory devices popular with kids. The aim of these is primarily for fun, but for children who require assistance in self-regulation, items like fidget spinners can be used to destress, increase concentration, or reduce anxiety. These toys could also be used to target motor skills like stretching the fine motor muscles in the hand.
What is the purpose of fidget toys?
Many people use hand fidgets to relieve stress and anxiety, to help focus, or just for playing and having fun. Stress balls, putty, and anything squishy and squeezy is helpful because they’re soothing, calming, products which are enjoyable to fidget with. Sensory items have helped people of all ages, from adults sitting at a desk at work to children in classrooms.
I’m an occupational therapist and recommending/providing sensory items to teachers and parents, for use at home or in the classroom, is something I regularly do.
Who needs fidget toys?
Occupational therapists have found fidget toys to benefit children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism.
The logic behind this is that enjoyable or fun physical activities like fidgeting are linked to pleasure responses that release the hormone dopamine (pleasure hormone) and norepinephrine (which helps to regulate sleep, alertness). The release of these hormones increases attention and sharpens focus.
In addition, fidgeting activates or simulates neural pathways. It is thought to improve tactile awareness, which is especially beneficial for autistic children with sensory issues such as hyporesponsive tactile stimuli.
How do fidget toys help autism?
Fidgets are especially useful in helping children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with self-regulation. Hand fidgets can help manage anxiety, improve attention/ability to focus, or even help children calm down when dealing with a surge of emotions such as extreme anger or frustration. Children on the autism spectrum can benefit from fidgeting, especially when they are stimming or engaging in hand flapping.
I own a sensory toy subscription box geared for children on the autism spectrum, so it’s my job to find unique and awesome toys to include in my monthly subscription. Below I will share some of the most popular items in past boxes and where you can find them yourself. I believe the items below are enjoyable to play with, yet calming and therapeutic!
10 fidget toys for autistic children
1. The Original Fidget Reversible Sequin Hand Fidget
This is a very unique fidget that is both fun and calming. Made with high-quality reversible sequin fabric, children can run their fingers over the sequins to flip them back and forth to change the colors. There’s also an elastic strap on the back to hold it in place while playing with it. This hand fidget is additionally wonderful because it’s visually calming and gives nice tactile input to the fingertips.
2. Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty
This can be used as a hand fidget to help children self-regulate. Squeeze, pull, roll, and squish this putty to help manage anxiety or use it as a calming tool. Manipulating putty can also be a great way to help a child focus or maintain attention. Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty has many different colors; however, the Persian Emerald is visually stimulating because of its bright, shimmering color.
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If your child needs to work on improving fine motor skills or hand strength, a great activity to do with this putty is to hide small items (such as beads) inside the putty and ask your child to dig through to “find” and pull them out. This gives a fantastic workout to the hands as it works on strengthening the small muscles.
3. Play Foam
Fun tactile play! Roll, squish, squash, sculpt, and squeeze this strange, but fun textured bubbly foam. Use it to help manage anxiety/anger as squeezing it is very calming and therapeutic. It won’t dry out or make a mess in your house (plus it’s easy to clean up). It is made by Educational Insights.
4. Spaghetti Ball
This sensory fidget has the sensation of “noodles” dripping through your fingers and has a very interesting texture to it. Enjoy pulling, squeezing, tossing, and stretching it. Use it as a calming stress reliever, something to hold to keep restless hands busy, or just for pure sensory fun. You can find yours here.
5. Squishy Stress Relief Balls
Smoosh, squeeze, stretch, pull, toss, and bounce these fun stress balls. These balls are strong, durable, and safe for kids (and parents…you may find yourself using them as well!). Perfect for the classroom, home, or to bring on the go. This item can help promote a sense of calm, reduce stress/anxiety, and increase focus/attention.
It’s great to use this as a warm-up activity prior to fine motor work or handwriting to help “wake up” the small muscles of the hand. Made with 100% thermoplastic rubber, they are hypoallergenic, non-toxic, and free of BPAs, phthalates, and latex. You can find yours on Amazon.
6. Stretchy Mice and Cheese
Squeeze, stretch, and push the little mice through the holes and pull them back out again! This cute fidget toy helps with fine motor coordination, hand strengthening, and is a great stress reliever. Plus, it has such a nice texture and feel to it (it’s hard to put down once you pick it up!). You can find yours here.
7. Sensory brush
This sensory brush has a bristled tactile surface on one side and a raised tiger design on the other, making both sides useful to sensory seekers. This brush is a nice way to provide extra tactile stimulation if your child craves tactile input or is a “sensory seeker.” Kids may enjoy running their fingers over the bristles or running the brush over their hands/arms/legs.
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This brush is simply intended as a way to provide tactile input and as a fidget tool to help with self-regulation. It’s not intended to replace a brushing program or sensory diet, so if you have any questions about integrating this item into your child’s everyday life, check with your child’s occupational therapist. This brush is also made with FDA-approved material so it can be used as an oral motor tool (for moderate chewers). Find yours here at Fun and Function.
8. Abilitations Squash It
Each Squash is a visually pleasing, different, two-tone color. Keep it in a pocket, desk, school bag, or purse. They can travel or stay at home. Hold them vertically and then turn them upside down to watch the colors swirl or work the colors back and forth through the narrow chamber for a great finger workout. This is a silent fidget, so it’s especially great to use in the classroom (as it’s not distracting to others.) These are latex-free and filled with a non-toxic mineral oil fluid. You can find them here.
9. Spiky Slap Bracelets
These strong and durable bracelets have soft rubber spikes that offer tactile stimulation. They’re great for kids to wear so they can touch and feel the texture of the soft spikes for sensory input. It also makes a subtle clicking noise that children find appealing and calming.
In a school setting, they’re good to lay flat on a desk to touch when needing to refocus. Made with high-quality silicone rubber, they are hypoallergenic, non-toxic, and free of BPAs, phthalates, and latex. You can find them on Amazon.
10. Wacky Tracks
This is a favorite, highly rated fidget toy. It bends in many directions to create endless shapes and makes a satisfying “clicking” noise as each link is moved. Wacky Tracks is a great hand fidget to use at home, in public settings, or during car rides. You can find them on Amazon.
Schecter, R. A., Shah, J., Fruitman, K., & Milanaik, R. L. (2017). Fidget spinners: Purported benefits, adverse effects and accepted alternatives. Current opinion in pediatrics, 29(5), 616–618. https://doi.org/10.1097/MOP.0000000000000523
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This article was featured in Issue 66 – Finding Calm and Balance