Feeling fidgety? There are toys that can help you focus

The fidget cube and spinner are said to benefit those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but they have become mainstream toys

Ms Cheryl Lee thinks with her hands, in a manner of speaking.

She used to click or twirl her pen during brainstorming sessions at work, where she designs and tests user experience for websites and mobile apps. Recently, she switched to using a toy called the fidget cube.

The 26-year-old, who is single, says: "I use it when I'm trying to think of ideas at work and I just need my hands to do something while I think. I like that it has different sensory components, so I don't get bored of the same action."

The Fidget Cube, which was created by American company Antsy Labs and launched on crowdfunding website Kickstarter last August, has six sides with different features, such as clicker buttons, joystick and gears that can be rolled back and forth. Its Kickstarter campaign had 154,926 backers and raised more than US$6 million (S$8.4 million).

Toys such as the fidget spinner and cube are said to help people with ADHD to focus or relax, whereas it is used for as a toy instead of a tool in mainstream culture. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

The original cube by Antsy Labs, made of vinyl, retails for US$25 on its website www.antsylabs.com, but imitation versions are available for $10 each in toy shops here.

It is a toy for people who like to fidget and is said to benefit people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

According to Dr Noradlin Yusof, an educational and clinical psychologist with Impetuz Psychological Service, those with ADHD experience difficulties with self-regulation and show signs of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Fidgeting is a common symptom.

She says: "Children and adults with ADHD find that the fidget spinner and cube help to occupy their hands or distract them from reaching out for other things and provide them with a sensory stimulation as their mind attends to something else. For some individuals with ADHD, such sensory stimulation soothes them and helps them relax."

Some years before the fidget cube came along, there was another toy designed specifically for fidgety fingers.

In the 1990s, Florida-based Catherine Hettinger designed a plastic UFO-like dish that one would spin with the index finger.

Since her patent for the toy expired in 2005, her invention has developed into a popular toy known as the fidget spinner.

Typically, the spinner has three prongs and is weighted in the centre. Ball bearings allow the prongs to spin freely. There are several versions of the toy, including those with two to five prongs and made of materials such as plastic, wood or metal.

Ms Melissa Chan, an animator who works at a local video production house, plays with a fidget spinner during work meetings. The 29-year-old does not have ADHD - she just likes playing with it.

Ms Melissa Chan, who does not have ADHD, likes to play with a fidget spinner.ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN

She says: "In a way, it's calming to look at it and it takes my mind off things. It gives me something to do with my hands other than twirling my pen."

Mr Alvin Quek, assistant operations manager of box shop chains Toy Outpost and Hako, say that they have sold at least 15,000 units of the fidget cube and spinner and other related items in the past three months. Toy Outpost and its sister company, Hako, have 13 outlets in Singapore, including Plaza Singapura and Parkway Parade.

Spinners cost from $10 each for a plastic model to more than $100 for a metal version with premium bearings.

While the fidget cube and spinner may be popular toys, experts say that more research is needed to find out exactly how such gadgets help those with ADHD to focus, or if they instead distract them from paying attention to other tasks at hand.

Dr Cheryl Seah, a senior psychologist at the TLC Speech and Language Clinic, says that while the fidget spinner may benefit people with ADHD in other ways, it may not help with improving their attention or concentration.

She says: "It may be helpful for a particular child with special needs, such as an anxious child with autism, who needs the sensory stimulation to regulate himself and not to focus on distracting sounds or lights in a classroom. (But) as the fidget spinner is both sensory and visually stimulating, it can distract peers and themselves visually."

At Pathlight School, Singapore's first autismfocused school, fidget materials are available for some of its students to use. Ms Alina Chua, the school's principal autism consultant, says use of the materials is based on individual needs and not just for those with ADHD.

She adds: "We are not aware of any research or impact of the use of the fidget cubes and are unable to comment on how it might benefit individuals with ADHD. At Pathlight, students have access to a range of materials to fidget with based on their needs and interests, and the appropriateness for use in the school context."

Such fidget toys may also not be necessary for those with ADHD who have already found other ways to channel their hyperactive energy.

Ms Tina Tan, vice-president of Society for the Promotion of ADHD Research and Knowledge (Spark), had bought a fidget cube for her 12-year-old son who has ADHD, but he used it for only a few days.

Ms Tan, who has two other sons, says: "Before I bought the fidget cube, I was looking out for a suitable gadget to help him remain seated in the classroom without biting his fingernails or his pencil. But maybe he has already learnt other ways of coping without gadgets, so the fidget cube did not fill a need for him."

Mr Ashokan Ramakrishnan’s daughter, Ava, who has ADHD, uses the fidget spinner to improve her concentration. His son Ayden does not have ADHD, but he too plays with the spinner. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Spinner helps 12-year-old cope

Mr Ashokan Ramakrishnan's 12- year-old daughter, Ava, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when she was in Primary 1.

Since last month, she has been playing with the fidget spinner to help her concentrate while doing her homework.

Ava says that she first found out about the cube last year, followed by the spinner, while watching videos of the items on YouTube.

Mr Ashokan, 45, who works in the technology industry and is the honorary secretary of the Society for the Promotion of ADHD Research and Knowledge (Spark), says that he likes that the spinner empowers his daughter.

He says: "With Ava, the spinner is another tool she can use to regulate her attention and I really like the fact that it empowers her - it teaches her how to cope on her own without the need for medication or needing to have an adult to help."

Ava has two fidget spinners and one fidget cube, but prefers the spinner as she finds it more fun to play with.

She says: "The spinner is a tool when I'm doing homework and a toy when I'm bored. I like the smooth feeling when I hold it and the wind I feel when I spin it. The cube makes me feel like throwing it because it feels very 'throwable'."

Her 10-year-old brother Ayden, who does not have ADHD, also plays with the spinner. He says: "A lot of people have the spinner, but mine is a fancy gold colour. I spin it and try to balance it on my palm."

The fidget spinner is not the only tool Ava uses to help her regulate her attention impulses. To help her concentrate, she also snacks on sunflower seeds, seaweed or nuts; listens to Korean pop music while doing her homework; and uses the Wobble Cushion, an air-filled rubber disc that she can sit on or place her feet on, allowing her some degree of movement while she remains seated at her desk.

Mr Ashokan says it requires trial and error to find ADHD tools that have the "maximum effectiveness with minimum disruption and side effects".

"Different fidget devices affect different children with ADHD differently," he says. "For some, the spinner helps them to focus better, while for others, the fidget cube may do the trick. For yet others, it may be neither of these and, instead, they prefer to suck on a straw or chew on a pen or straw."

Above all, he says what people with ADHD need the most is understanding and not pity.

"At the heart of the ADHD condition is the inability to regulate impulses. We all have experienced moments where our impulses get the better of us. For the ADHD child, his brain is just wired such that these 'moments' occur way too frequently, making him appear inattentive, hyperactive and often disruptive.

"However, once we understand this, we can relate better to his struggles and help him to find ways to regulate his impulses and attention better."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'Fidget, click, spin'. Print Edition | Subscribe