Feature Story

Out of touch

It’s a regular weekday afternoon and 16-year-old Rachel Corvaia sits in class as her mind wanders into every possible territory, drowning out everything coming from the teacher’s mouth. The hard plastic of the chair digs into her thighs and there is a monotonous ticking from the clock. She repetitively taps her foot. Her fingers wrestle with the papers of her notebook, and she is unable to escape the overpowering noise filling her brain. She picks up the plastic pen sitting on her desk by its silicone grip and mindlessly clicks the button over and over. As she keeps her hands busy, voices in the classroom start to float back up to the surface.

Fidget toys are portable items designed to allow users engage in repetitive motions to help reduce stress and anxiety, and restore focus. They were introduced as tools for people with ADHD to manage their restless tendencies. Fidget spinners, fidget cubes, dimples, and ‘pop-its’ have been on the rise since 2017 appearing on store shelves and showing up on our social media feeds. Over the last decade, children have been bringing them to the playground and the classroom, and their potential to distract students who don’t really need them, raises questions about who should be able to access them.

Fidget toys like these have grown popular among children in recent years. Photo: Rachelle Grosse.

Fidget spinners made their mainstream debut in 2014 when IT worker Scott McCoskery developed the Torqbar, an expensive yet popular item in the fidget community at the time. Made from metal and selling for more than AUD $650 each, it wasn’t long until more affordable options came onto the market and the addictive spinning toys took off worldwide.

The items quickly garnered a lot of attention online, and soon parents were buying them for their children meanwhile unaware of their actual effects. In early May 2017, fidget toys rose in online search popularity worldwide before quickly dying down by the end of the month. Many studies at the time disproved their impact on increasing students’ attention in class, claiming there was no science behind these gadgets, and were described as no more than fun toys.

There was a lot of misinformation around the toys, and this led to the extreme rise and fall of them. By April 2021, they reached their peak in online search popularity worldwide with Australia ranking sixth for highest search volume.

Fidget Warehouse is one of many Australian companies offering a selection of different sensory products for a fraction of the price.

Fidget Warehouse owner and human resources director Lizzy Shobolov established the company Big Play Games with her husband and brother in 2017. The company started off selling an assortment of anime products before expanding their range to fidget toys in physical locations after strong customer demand. In early 2022, they launched the website Fidget Warehouse.

“We started off selling a lot of pop culture stuff and a lot of people who are into those kinds of things – like video games and nerdy stuff – are neurodivergent. So, heaps of our regular customers … were the ones going ‘hey you should look into these fidget spinners and look at getting ‘pop-its’ because I’m really stressed all the time.’ Like that’s our demographic,” she says.

Shobolov says her brother has autism and her husband has ADHD so their passion for the company hits close to home. Before people could get their hands on a physical fidget toy, she noticed people around her were popping bubble wrap and picking at their skin, but now there’s a whole market of products out there catering to these needs. She has recognised the toys’ positive impact on her family’s lives and wants to be able to provide these tools for people like them.

“Children with ADHD usually need a physical outlet, and fidget toys allow them to discreetly be able to keep their hands busy and their minds focused. It’s mutually beneficial.”

Fidget Warehouse owner and HR Director, Lizzy Shobolov.
Fidget toys have found their way into the hands of more people since the pandemic. Photo: Rachelle Grosse

The coronavirus outbreak saw record highs for online shopping. In March 2020, according to Google Trends data, the term ‘online shopping’ was searched drastically more in Australia than the previous month. Before long, fidget toys had reemerged as a fad as companies began taking advantage of this rising interest.

Fidget Warehouse was forced to close their doors and made the decision to transition into selling their products online. As the coronavirus outbreak died down in 2022, the company reopened pop-up stalls around Queensland, and they saw their demographic expand to a much bigger market than their anime and video game fans. Both online and in person, the products made its way to nurses, occupational therapists, teachers, and most commonly children.

“All of a sudden, mums with kids who maybe don’t know what neurodivergence is or what autism is, were stopping by stands and buying from us, and it pretty much expanded from then on.”

Fidget Warehouse owner and HR Director, Lizzy Shobolov.

The company recently announced their ‘Schools, Clubs, & Charities Initiative’ which provides organisations the opportunity to bulk buy a supply of fidget toys for a discounted price. It focuses on giving back to the community especially the groups who have supported them. This includes hospitals, schools, and non-profit charities in which the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.

She has noticed a lot of fidget toy companies popping up in recent years making the market more competitive, and making the products more affordable for customers, who usually buy more than just one item. We have seen these toys become a staple in goodie bags and as free gifts, creeping their way into general department stores and stands in shopping centres. Over the past few years, the Royal Shows across Australia have even introduced the showbag ‘Ultimate Fidgets’ to cater to customer interest.

A range of fidget toys can be found in many popular department stores. Photo: Rachelle Grosse.

In 2017, the same year they gained mass popularity, some WA schools announced they would be banning fidget spinners and cubes for being too distracting for students. Reports said they became a hindrance to student learning and focus in class, drawing students’ attention to the toys rather than on classwork. There were also fears they could fly out of students’ hands and harm other students. The ban didn’t apply to all schools as it was up to individual schools to deal with the matter on their own terms.

A spokesperson from the Department of Education says decisions to ban certain items at individual WA public schools are made by school leaders who are not required to inform the department.

Some of the schools who implemented these rules were approached for comment.

The ban came with concerns among parents and children, afraid their education would be compromised since those with learning difficulties no longer had the tools they needed to help them focus in class.

A 2021 study by US researchers said fidget toys emerged as a sensory tool to combat distraction and improve the attention of students with ADHD in the classroom. Students with ADHD have various behavioural and academic needs, and their distraction affects not only their academic performance but becomes a challenge for their educators to manage alongside neurotypical students.

The study measured the effect of fidget spinners on the on-task behaviour of three second-grade students with ADHD, and results confirmed the first known use of fidget spinners as an effective tool. It notes fidget spinners’ popularity among school-aged children and concludes that while fidget devices are mostly useful for students with ADHD, their widespread implementation for all students is not effective on productivity.

Rachel Corvaia is now 22 years old and no longer stuck in a classroom, clicking her pen. She has dealt with ADHD, anxiety, and dyslexia for a lot of her life. She was formally diagnosed with ADHD at age 20 but experienced a lot of issues in school with educators at the time not being better informed how to cater to neurodivergent students.

“I was put into the lower academic classes and a lot of the teachers would kind of baby me and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything.”

Rachel Corvaia
Rachel Corvaia faced a lot of difficulties with focus in school due to her ADHD. Photo: Rachelle Grosse.

Corvaia says there are a lot of misconceptions around neurodivergent people and she claims that if she was taught about her ADHD in her formative years, it would have been easier for her to navigate later on.

She says she wishes she had been able to bring a fidget toy to school so she could sit in with the rest of the class and be treated with better understanding. However, she also believes fidgeting does not always go hand-in-hand with neurodivergence, and anyone should be able to access them responsibly as a tool.

Corvaia takes part in live action role-playing and sword-fighting, and claims she gets a lot of creativity from her ADHD. She recognises there is a stigma that fidget toys are childish and people who use them shouldn’t be treated with the same level of respect as those who don’t require them, but she wants there to be more light shone on people with learning difficulties because hers are not always a barrier to the rest of her life.

“People have a right to use whatever they want … I hope they aren’t just marketed as something for children because if someone with ADHD and neurodivergence comes in with a fidget toy, I don’t want them to be made fun of because that’s something they actually need to focus,” she says.

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