Most people think of children with Attention Deficit HYPERACTIVITY Disorder as being kids who bounce off the walls, sometimes literally so. Several years ago, there was some debate as to whether or not our kid had ADHD. All of the disorganised, inattentive, losing-things, forgetting-things details were there, as well as the bedroom floor that was invisible from clutter. Certainly the kid couldn’t sit through dinner without hopping up from the chair several times. But in school the kid behaved somewhat differently (as children often do), and remained appropriately seated. Because the kid is also rather reticent, there wasn’t the frequent class interruptions that one gets with the talkative sort of ADHD student.
The kid is now 16, and not surprisingly, has matured as well as gotten older. Years of developing support systems at home have paid off in some areas; the kid rarely has to hunt down two matching shoes, and does a rather good job of keeping track of the daily pocket necessities. However, there are still the missing assignments that result in low academic marks, and I’m realising that I need to once again start asking to have multiple-item instructions repeated back, to ensure that the attention hasn’t wandered off during mention of items 2 through N.
Of course, the kid still fidgets (as do I). The fidgets tend to change over time and according to availability. Nice weather results in bouts of jumping on the big back yard trampoline to wear off some of the boingy-boingy before settling down to school work. Pausing to think while writing essays results in shuffling cards, listening to music, or clicking the carabiner clip of the combination flashlight-keyring. Reading books can be done sitting on the giant exercise ball, standing partially on a scooter, while chewing gum, or jiggling a leg. Memorising details is often accompanied by bouncing a hand-ball. At home we’re also blessed with four cats, which provide plenty of opportunity to give one furry friend or another its required pets and scritches.
Fidgeting can be defined as a “repetitive sensory-motor activity”, which puts it into the realm of “stimming”. But unlike some types of stimming activities that enable a person to withdraw and de-stress from an overwhelming situation, fidgeting helps the person stay engaged with the world and on the task at hand. (I don’t include interfering or self-injurious behaviors in the realm of “fidgets”.)
Fidgets are invaluable when the local environment doesn’t provide sufficient kinds of stimulation, which makes it difficult because the brain craves a certain level of input, and lacking it will resort to seeking non-relevant external input (such as staring out the window or interacting with a peer), or by creating non-relevant internal input by mentally “wandering off” into the world of speculative daydreaming. For example, the margins of my school notes tend to get covered in triangles, just as Bev’s are filled with squares. While at my home desk, I have the option of watching my various arthropods, the beetle, crickets and tarantula.
Of course, not all fidgets are useful in all situations — noisy ones would be a bad choice in classroom or office settings because they would be distracting to other people. So a person must have a repertoire of fidgets, including those that are appropriate to different situations and are respectful of others’ needs.
But an unobtrusive fidget is a functional adaptation. It’s a useful stimming activity that helps regulate chaotic sensory inputs and enables focus. As such, it is not something to be discouraged by teachers, parents or others because it is perceived as “being childish” or “a stereotypy”. Instead, appropriate fidgets need to be encouraged as useful coping strategies.