I’ve been keeping an eye on the fidget spinner trend which has been characterized as the “latest classroom menace” and even more hyperbolically as “a threat to America”. Let me be clear in that while I don’t think these plastic spinney things pose a risk to national security, I can imagine them wreaking havoc in a classroom.
What sort of bothers me about this whole issue though is that fidgeting is hardly a new trend. Specialized fidgeting tools have been used for years, probably decades, mostly by neurodiverse people (mainly autistics and those with ADHD, from what I’ve heard). Neurotypicals fidget too. I think most people fidget to some extent — clicking a pen, biting fingernails, or tapping feet, for examples.
For many autistic people though, this goes beyond just “fidgeting.” In clinical, DSM-V terminology this is “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements,” part of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders. In the language of the autistic community, this is called “stimming,” short for self-stimulating behavior. Autistic people stim to cope with sensory overload, to self-soothe, and because it’s fun. For example, I’ll often flap my hands when I get excited or rock back and forth when I want to calm down or focus. Until recently, I never got any special “stim toys” or tools, but there has been a market for such things for, and sometimes by, autistic people long before the past several months.
It’s been interested seeing something that I would go so far as to label part of autistic culture become mainstream. Now, I don’t care if you’re neurotypical and want a fidget toy. Go for it. But can we talk for a bit about how when autistic people stim it’s seen as odd or even discouraged? What about how some autistic people are forced in to behavioral treatments that punish stimming? For me, that is enough to put somewhat of a restraint on celebrating the normalization of stimming by neurotypical people.
The upside? I feel comfortable enough with stimming in public that I bought a fidget cube, (though this was before the fidgeting craze really took off). I will say that the fidget cube has helped me manage anxiety in overwhelming or stressful situations. Now that neurotypicals do it, fidgeting isn’t seen as stigmatized. Having a larger market will make these items cheaper and more accessible to those who need them most.
And at the same time, I’m reminded of being a little kid and being told not to flap my hands. Is fidgeting only okay when certain people do it? Can we move towards understanding and accepting neurodiverse means of body language and communication in general?