When is a Stim-Toy not a Stim-Toy?

There’s been a lot of talk about annoyance at the main-streaming of stim-toys like fidget spinners.

It seems like every child I know has one. In some ways it’s been lovely seeing something designed for Neurodiverse people, being taken up by the mainstream. But then came the inevitable backlash, because it’s a loophole in many schools’ policies on toys. Toys aren’t allowed, but this is a stim-toy, they are.

How can one object be two very different things? Well, it’s all down to the brain using them.

I want to explain how I work, what techniques I use to keep this overactive brain of mine under control.

Picture an evening in the Rhi-household. The kids are in bed, Mr Rhi and I are pretending that there isn’t any washing up to do right now, and taking a moment to collapse.

Then we realise that we were going to discuss changing electricity suppliers, oh the joy and glamour that is my life. What do I do? I pull out my phone and start playing solitaire as we discuss figures. I don’t look at my husband as we talk. I’m moving cards around on a screen. It’s all patterns to me and no matter how hard I try to make it, the solving of the puzzles blossom in front of me.

All the while we are discussing practicalities. I glance occasionally at the relevant figures, but other than that you’d think I was completely distracted by my phone.

I’m not. I’m focused entirely on the job in hand. I’m running the different options through my head, doing a cost-benefit analysis, working out the logistics and coming to conclusions.

Whenever concentration is needed, I have a choice. I can choose to look interested and as though I’m concentrating, I can sit still, and smile appropriately, or I can look entirely disinterested and disconnected and actually listen and think.

I wrote my dissertation whilst bombarding my brain with information to keep it focused. It’s how I work best. I cannot block the sensory world out the way most people do. But I can redirect my senses to one pleasant sensation, and keep it tamed.

Most children focus on whatever it is they are playing with. In these hands stim-toys are not stim-toys, they’re just toys. They’re not an aid to concentration. They’re a hinderance. They don’t work. They’re just good old-fashioned fun.

I’ve read articles slamming them as monstrous, followed by a brief disclaimer saying “of course kids with needs should still be allowed them”, because nothing teaches children to be kind like everyone vilifying the toy you love, but letting the child who’s a bit different keep theirs. (sarcasm)

A stim-toy is not a stim-toy unless it is used to stim. It sounds like some awful joke. When is a stim-toy not a stim-toy? When it’s a toy.

We as adults need to be careful about how we talk about these things. Concentration aids are essential in classrooms for those who need them. It didn’t need the disproportionate response. If you don’t let an uninjured child use crutches in your classroom, then it’s fine to say no to any toy that isn’t a stim-toy (again using the definition that only a toy used for stimming is a stim-toy). No drama. No outrage. No childish response. No outrage. Just a bit of sense and kindness.

I need to stim. Even when my stupid hypermobile joints are painful, I need to stim. It hits me somewhere deep inside my head, like warm honey on cold butter. It soothes and helps and makes the world softer and less metallic. Don’t tell me to stop. Don’t highlight my difference, just accept it and skim past.

Tl;dr version: Anything can be a “stim”; looking at shadows, splashing water, rubbing a tissue between your fingers, what makes it a stim is the effect on the person doing it. If it aids concentration and brain-calming, then it’s stimming. If it’s just fun, then it’s not. A stim-toy is not a stim-toy if it’s being used as a toy, no matter what the label says.

26 thoughts on “When is a Stim-Toy not a Stim-Toy?

  1. Not sure how you feel about a parallel with a medical model, but it’s one that helps me see it – and one I used with a (non-teaching) colleague to explain why they may be useful/helpful/vital with some kids (in our setting) but a problem with others.

    Somebody with epilepsy has distinct, specific differences in how their brain functions. Over time, we have found some medications which balance out these differences and so allow the same level of function, most of the time, for sufferers. (See also: asthma, type 1 diabetes, high blood pressure…) These interventions are there to address a specific difference which causes problems.

    For some people, these fidget-spinners perform the same function; they allow the person to compensate for that difference to avoid the problems that can follow. If a person/student *doesn’t* have that difference, the intervention doesn’t help – and may actually cause problems itself.

    The difficulty here is that by associating non-NT behaviours/traits with issues such as diabetes and epilepsy, I worry I’m adding to the perception of these traits as abnormal or faulty.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You have done it carefully and sensitively. Absolutely. To me it seems like the idea of “stimming” is being used as a marketing tool to sell more. Which isn’t a problem, except where schools aren’t able to apply logic to the differences between need and want.

      It’s all quite simple really, no need for a villain at all. The last thing we want is to stop children who find these techniques helpful from being able to access them.

      Thank you for your thoughtful words.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. So the next question, for teachers (and this isn’t an easy one) is where do you draw the line? If we have happy, NT kid at one end and diagnosed, needs stim-toy to stay focused in class, ASD kid at the other – it is a spectrum after all! – then who gets to use them during work time? Because as a secondary teacher, I worked with kids who:

    were currently seeking diagnosis for ASD traits
    were undiagnosed but, to me, clearly had traits in common but parents refused to accept
    were happy to claim such items helped despite the opposite effect
    were likely to be distracted by *others* using them!

    I’m not in the classroom now, but used to offer improvised alternatives such as blu-tack and pipe cleaners. It’s like music during work; some kids will swear blind it helps them concentrate when in fact they produced work of a much lower quality.

    I don’t have an answer to this, by the way! Every classroom is filled with shades of grey and we never get it right all the time.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Absolutely. Not saying it’s an easy distinction by any means. I would have a blanket ban on them as toys with an exception for anyone who needed to stim (with or without diagnosis). Probably would need a parent to request discussion if no diagnosis present, with access being granted on a trial basis to see if it helped.

      I’ve had a go with one of the spinners, and although it’s nice, it wouldn’t be my item of choice.

      I would hate to see stimming pushed back as something to be ashamed of.

      It’s all balance and making the best of what we have (as always).

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I’ve taught for 21 years and am undiagnosed ASD. I tell students that it’s a matter of the results they produce. I’m not talking about every nit picky day but the general trend. I explain that I permit until a student demonstrates that it’s time for me to interject. Sure, it’s “not fair”, and we teachers are hired to be professionals who can tell the difference and manage classes.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Sounds eminently sensible to me.

        Fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same things regardless, it means everyone gets their needs met where possible.


      2. I agree, FWIW. We always use our judgment, of course. But it makes life a lot easier if the rules are clear and consistent to the students – I always used to tell them that what I did, whether praise or sanction, would never be a surprise. What makes this fashion interesting – and challenging! – is that what is arguably a clinical aid for some kids had become a bandwagon for the rest! And the last thing we want to do is tell them, “No, Jamie, you’re not far enough on the spectrum but Jonny is.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There doesn’t need to be inconsistency though. Stim toys are allowed. By definition a stimtoy will be an aid to concentration for that person. If it isn’t helping then it’s not a stimtoy.

          Lots of stimtoys do nothing for me. I can’t use them to stim. They would be a distraction for me, not a help. That doesn’t mean I’m not on the spectrum, it just means those things aren’t stimtoys for me. They’re just toys.


          1. Yes – what makes it a stim-tool (which sounds like something from bad sci-fi or worse porn) is the positive result. The problem is that kids are so often honestly deluded about what *actually* helps them concentrate. And that’s assuming they’re prepared to be reasonable about it. These days I work with teachers, and so far it hasn’t been an issue. Maybe in this week’s workshops that will change!


      3. Sounds like the right way to do things to me! I have ADHD, and I’d much rather see students using a Tangle or something to help them focus, then the tearing paper, disassembling calculators, and other destructive or distracting things I did in class back in the 90s. (My poor, poor teachers…) My family and I didn’t know about this stuff (and certainly teachers never dared mention it, because OMG Toys! In! Class!) and my attention suffered for it, even on medication.

        If it helps, or at least doesn’t hinder focus, then fidget away! If it bothers your classmates, or it’s hindering your focus and learning, then put it away until after class. It’s THAT SIMPLE, and if parents complain, then I’ll be more than happy to explain how this works and why some kids “get” to “play in class” while others don’t.

        I’m also thinking of having a “stim station” of loaner toys like Tangles, Planet Putty, and a couple squishy toys, with these rules posted above the station:

        1. Remember, it’s not yours to keep—Please return loaner toys at the end of the class period.
        2. Remember, other people use these toys too—please don’t put loaner toys in your mouth!
        3. If one fidget doesn’t work, you can always try a different one, but please don’t take more than one toy at a time!
        4. Accidental breakage happens, but if I see you deliberately damaging one of my toys, you lose loaner privileges. Please be respectful with other people’s things!

        along with the general fidget-toy rules I’ve seen on Harkla:

        1. A fidget is a small object to help you pay attention to the teacher.
        2. You can hold it, move it, and play with it while you are looking at the teacher.
        3. You can use a fidget when you are having trouble paying attention or keep touching things.
        4. Do not use your fidget to get the attention of your friends.
        5. The fidget must stay in your hands or on your desk.

        If they can’t follow the guidelines, or if the fidgets hinder focus instead of helping it, they have to put it away. No ifs, ands, or buts.

        (I teach math at the secondary level. I figure middle-schoolers and high-schoolers are old enough to understand and abide by these rules, without me having to make a big production out of it.)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you! With out knowing you just gave me a well needed clou!! Know I “just” have to learn not to be irritable when my husband is fiddling, with what ever he can lay his hands on, when his talking and thinking at the same time… It’s been driving me crazy because I loose my consentration and feeling that he ain’t listning. Thanks to you now I know better ☺

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Excellent! It took my husband a while to realise that the less I look like I’m listening, the more I am. It definitely helped him to realise that we just come at things from a different place. Glad to be of assistance!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And that difference in how we do things and how we think ia a good thing most of the time – its what makes us a good team. But sometimes 😲 and I think it works both ways…

        Liked by 2 people

  4. My handful of friends in college would get mad at me when I would play solitaire on my phone at dinner, and when my roommate got mad at me she would exclude me from stuff we did as a group saying I was just going to play on my phone anyway.

    It’s hard to get people to understand that because I’m doing something else or not looking at them at all that I AM listening and processing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Some people find it incredibly hard to empathise with anyone who doesn’t think in the same way that they do. They can only apply their own motivations to other people’s actions, even when it’s explained. And they say we are the “rigid thinkers”.

      I’ve found that people are less offended if it’s something they can feel included in. A phone is a barrier, but doing origami or crochet or making figures out of bent paperclips isn’t.

      I learned a few origami patterns on YouTube, and it’s away to keep focused, avoid eye contact, and not alienate the people around me (when I don’t want to explain that I need something else to do).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. …and they keep saying it’s people on the spectrum who don’t have empathy. Hmmmm.
        “A stim-toy is not a stim-toy unless it is used to stim. It sounds like some awful joke. When is a stim-toy not a stim-toy? When it’s a toy”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Rhi, great blog! By housemate and work colleague has Asperger’s so I’m trying to understand a bit more about where he’s coming from. I’ve read quite a few posts just now, they’ve all got a good piece of insight that helps me build a picture! One thing to note about disproportionate responses from people: I agree that they need to calm down a little bit. However I feel that people tend to have a greater emotional response when they feel like they don’t understand (and get frustrated with not understanding the nuances)/feel they have been deceived. I think either one of these results can happen with stim-toys because the need for stim-toys is more opaque than those of crutches. It is clear when someone has a broken leg and therefore needs crutches. 1. People can easily interpret the symptoms of the problem (broken leg, hard to walk on) and people understand the solution (crutches). With regards to stim-toys, I think that people find it harder to either to interpret the problem or understand the solution as much. They may not understand Asperger well enough to appreciate the use of a stim-toy, and they may not see the utility of a stim-toy past that of just a toy. If they then don’t understand Asperger’s well enough (frustrated with not understanding) or find out that a non-Asperger’s kid has been using one when they otherwise thought it was for stim-toy utility (deception) they may have a larger emotional response.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’s great that you’re trying to understand your colleague/housemate better. I absolutely agree that the problem is with people not “getting” autism and assuming the wrong things. I hope that one day we’ll get past autism awareness and into a bit of autism understanding. Where people won’t assume that everyone else is just like them. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else! I’ve just had to learn how you non-Autistics think, and make allowances, because you’re everywhere 😄


  6. Oh wow, if I knew there was no “delete comment”/edit function I would have double checked what I was saying! *Autism rather than Aspergers. *My instead of “By” (second sentence). Embarrassing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My god. How can we have so much in common? It feels like you’re family. It’s like you’re closer to my heart than most people around me, and I dont even know you.
    It’s like you read my mind and observed me for a long time and created and character based on it. What an insane experience.
    After 28 years of isolation and being a unique person trying to adapt, to develop the ability to enter difference universes to avoid being completely alone, learning to glue a mask to my face so strong I dont even remember who I really am anymore.
    Suddenly I get diagnosed, and now I look long and hard into a mirror that keeps surprising me beyond anything I thought possible, fictional.
    What an experience. What a privilege to go through this.

    Liked by 1 person

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