12 Days of ADHD 9: Fidgeting
Monday 25th October, 2021
October is ADHD Awareness Month. I've decided that I'm going to use that as a writing prompt, and to set myself a challenge. For the next twelve days, I'm goinga to write something about my experiences learning about ADHD as a very recently diagnosed adult.
I thought today I'd write about Fidgeting!
Consider these two definitions:
- "Fidgeting is making small movements with your body, usually your hands and feet. It's associated with not paying attention, and often reflects discomfort and restlessness. [...] The physical activity of fidgeting can provide a temporary distraction from whatever activity you're doing. [...] [Another] study suggests that a fidgeting body simply reflects a wandering mind. [...] Your fidgeting may affect the way that others view you because they assume that you're not paying attention." (healthline.com)
- "Several research studies have confirmed what many people have experienced through fidgeting: Their ability to pay attention, their memory recall, and their problem-solving improves. Another study concluded that the fidgety behavior displayed by children and adults with ADHD may be an effort to increase their attention and alertness. [...] [people] with ADHD do better on tasks if given some sort of outlet to get out their energy, to distract their hands." (chadd.org)
Now - if you read either article you'll see I've taken some creative license in how I've quoted either; the healthline one does reference some of the same studies about the attentional benefits of fidgeting and concedes that it can, in moderation, be helpful especially for people with ADHD. Conversely, the CHADD article does agree that there is a reasonable level of fidgeting, and there is a point where it's too much. But - the article written for a general audience uses more negative language to describe fidgeting, whereas the one written within the context of ADHD understands how it can help us.
Stimming is sort-of another word for fidgeting, but describes a broader range of self-stimulating behaviours. I am aware of the term from when I was researching autism, but people with ADHD stim just the same. Reading the definitions of fidgeting versus stimming, I get the vibe that generally fidgeting encompasses the more "socially acceptable" forms of stimming, where you might be slightly annoying with your leg bouncing and tapping and pen-clicking, but you're not being disruptive.
Despite that, I think a lot of kids get conditioned to feel like their OK fidgeting-stimming behaviours are bad too, and as such what we are left with are either very subtle, or very internal to us.
Here's a list of stimming types - you can probably guess which things it's noticed that kids do, versus what masking adults do. I'm going to mark them as Me As A Kid (K) versus Me As An Adult (A), and italicize the disruptive ones (disruptive to other people, in that they are either subtly or overtly distracting to them):
- Taps fingers or feet, humming or swaying back and forth (K/A)
- Bites nails or chews on the inside of the cheek (K/A)
- Thumb sucking (K)
- Tasting or licking things (K)
- Spinning, twirling, pacing, rocking and jumping (K)
- Looking out of the corners of the eyes (K/A)
- Gazing at nothing (K/A)
- Staring at objects that have lights or movement (K/A)
- Blinking (K/A)
- Lining up objects (K/A)
- Rubbing hands together (K/A)
- Hair twirling (K/A)
- Patting, rubbing, or scratching the skin (K/A)
- Reciting songs or phrases and words from television (K)
- Covering and uncovering ears (K) - disruptive because it actively looks like you're going out of your way to not listen
- Snapping fingers (K/A)
- Clapping (K)
- Screaming (K)
- Humming (K/A)
I'm going to also add the ones I can think of personally to that list:
- Rocking or spinning in office chairs (K/A)
- Twitching nostril muscles, ear muscles, scrunching up eyes, tensing jaw, tensing butt cheeks, tensing leg muscles in a pattern (K/A)
- Twitching feet (K/A)
- Twitching toes (K/A)
- Cracking fingers (K/A)
- Clicking thumbs (K/A)
- Making eyeballs... vibrate??? (K/A)
- Focusing and unforusing eyes (K/A)
- Tapping collarbone (A)
- Clenching and unclenching fists (A)
- Crossing and un-crossing legs (K/A)
- Rocking and bouncing legs (K/A)
- Doodling on textbooks (K)
- Doodling on notebooks (K/A)
- Doodling on hands (K/A)
What's the, like, final score? Kid me gets 32, adult me gets 26. Kid me gets 11 disruptive ones, adult me gets 5. I don't know what kind of performance metric I'm going for here, but gold star adult me! Should note that as an adult, I'm so painfully aware of the Socially Acceptable ways in which I can fidget, so generally everything's at a minimum and, sat in a meeting, I'm probably going to be a tense ball of rhythmic muscle contractions and drawing abstract shapes either all over my nearby scraps of paper, or inadvertently coating my hands in ink.
It really does help!
Okay, there's things in there that kids should be persuaded not to do, for their benefit and... The rest of the classes. Screaming is probably not a good vibe. Humming loudly, yelling TV quotes, talking all over everyone, getting up and wandering around, generally keeping off-task and dragging others into the Chaos - yup, those definitely should be discouraged.
But - even after I'd learned that doing the above got me in trouble - I remember getting told off plenty of times as a kid for "not paying attention" just because I was doodling, or looking spaced out, or idly twirling some object in my hands, or lining up objects on my desk. The thing is, for me, these were the harmless markers that I was paying the most attention. Those little morsels of stimulation kept the Dopamine Goblin part of my brain happy, freeing up the rest of me to take in the information and commit it to memory. Tell a kid off for their natural state of being enough times, and not only do you condition away what were good focus-keeping behaviours, but you also make them painfully self-aware of their physical self, which winds up in them masking, constantly.
Looking at my school reports, because nobody really knew I was an ADHD Kid, they just kinda assumed I was being a Dickhead Kid, and the focus was on removing the bad behaviours but I don't remember them offering any alternatives - because you're meant to be sitting still and listening. Now that I'm older, I'm really glad that we had that fidget spinner trend a few years back, and that fidget toys are so mainstream that they even market them for professional professional business business adults. I think that that's taken off in recent years, and I'm glad kids have access to all those thinking and concentration aids.
I remember there was one teacher - and I wish I could recall whom exactly - who noticed me, head down, doodling in one of my books, whilst they were giving their lesson. Rather than stop to shout at me to pay attention, they came to my side later, when we were doing independent work, and simply asked: "Does all of that drawing in your margins help you to listen?" and... the question totally threw me. Of course it did, but I'd never thought of it as an aid - just something I wasn't meant to do (but was going to defiantly do anyway). This teacher got it - even before I had.
Having a discussion with my autistic friend the other day - something they discovered about themselves roughly about the time I started looking properly into ADHD this year. They realised, their entire life, they were working really hard to mask; that is to appear average - to be socially acceptable and to hide parts of themselves.
They then said that, now they were aware of how much they masked, gratefully they felt like they didn't have to do it as much, and that it was another tool to help them get by socially, but not something they had to do all the time. That really clicked with me - I've noticed that, even when I'm completely on my own, I try to suppress my own fidgeting as much as possible, and frankly it's unnecessary. If I'm home alone, nobody else is there to care if I hum, sing to myself, talk out loud, shake my legs or get up and pace around.
I think for autistic people it's definitely something they feel they have to work harder doing, to expend energy on. At least ADHD kids can get away with being funny all the time; that's our quick shortcut. But yuuup, the ADHD'ers definitely share some of that masking. We devote a lot of energy to things like: Am I Making The Right Level Of Eye Contact? and Have I Made Enough Noises to Convey I Am Listening? and Where Do I Put My Arms? and Where Do I Put My Feet? and How Much Movement Is Too Much?
People have a tendency to mistake thinking-fidgeting with anxious fidgeting too - they can pick up wrongly that you're worrying or nervous or bothered about something. Completely not the vibe that might be in your head. You might be violently rocking your legs because you've got some Difficult and Abstract Concept that you're working through in your head. The movement is just an external sign of your internal working memory working very hard on something. The most I vibrate is when maths.
Subsequently, even the harmless types of stimming/fidgeting, as you grow older, you consciously work not to do, to allow yourself to gel better in social situations - especially with people you don't know. I can be such a ball of tense energy in unfamiliar situations, or at work or whilst volunteering - because those are the places where people don't necessarily know you well and you want to make sure you're not going to behave in a way that's going to throw them off guard or distract them.
And, if you don't have much "acceptable" fidgeting left, what else is left? Oh no-
Body Focused Repetitive Behaviours (BFRBs)
I should note here that BFRBs can be quite serious and cause lots of distress, so maybe what I consider I do as BFRBs needs another term. These are also common things that most people do at some point - pulling/chewing hair, biting nails, grinding teeth, picking at skin, biting lips and teeth, cracking joints. The more serious and distressing BFRBs are things like chronic hair pulling (trichotillomania) and skin-picking (dermatillomania) and strong teeth grinding (bruxism).
BFRBs aren't necessarily a marker of neurodivergence (they're not explicitly an ADHD/Autism/OCD thing, for example). They can be a symptom of anxiety, PTSD, or just occur during stressful times. An estimated 2% of the population have BFRBs to the extent that it warrants an official diagnosis.
However, I have these behaviours that cause me minor damage (and therefore further points of distraction later on), and feel like automatic behaviours - oftentimes I'll be doing them before I even notice I am, so it makes it quite difficult to quit doing them. I chew my nails enough that I have none left and my nail beds are sore and bleeding, I make my lips sore, I inadvertently pick at the skin of my cuticles until my fingers are bleeding too.
One of my bezzies, whilst putting in lots of energy to being cheerful and chirpy and confident and upbeat - I used to be able to tell when they'd been through a stressful time, because they had to tape up a bunch of their fingers in an attempt to stop picking at them and making them sore and bleed. They're doing well now, and when I see them their hands show it. At the time, they quite darkly quipped that skin-picking and chewing our nails off was "the most socially acceptable form of self-mutilation".
BFRBs have been connected to ADHD and posited that they aren't necessarily just a coping mechanism for anxiety; for us they can also be a source of dopamine production and stimulation.
Either way, I'd quite like to have fingernails. I was doing well for a while this year, and having proper fingernails and fingers that weren't constantly sore was quite a neat experience, but then I lapsed - it takes a lot of effort for me to catch myself doing it and stop, and trying to un-learn the habit kinda got lost in the rest of noise of life.
So now I'm setting myself a goal to try not to chew my nails again, but this time armed with a little more insight about it, and-
Personally I never really got the fidget spinner trend. They just... spin? They don't satisfy my need for tactile stimulation at all. But aside from the product, the trend was great for normalising the use of benign, idle handheld playthings as concentration aids.
I have two healthy alternatives to destroying my hands that have a permanent residency on my desk - a hand grip strengthener, and a fidget cube. The hand strengthener I can grip hard and it works some wrist muscles (that turn out to be quite useful for crimp-y holds in bouldering); a bit of an idle workout you can do subconsciously whilst thinking. The fidget cube is just... It's so good. Each side has a different tactile thing on it - lots of clicky buttons, a wheel you can spin, a squishy button, clicky dials, a ball you can roll, a smooth recess for your thumb, and a really satisfying switch. I'm playing with this thing all the time when I'm on zoom calls, and I find I automatically pick it up whenever I'm deep in abstract thought or problem-solving.
Here's a photo of my hands, on a day when I didn't have my desk toys handy, just pens, versus my unmarked hands today:
These things are so simple, so cheap, but can make a world of difference, but they're not really something you consider getting as an adult - there was a weird stigma attached. They used to be mostly marketed for kids. Although now I look on Amazon today, lots of sellers have started tacking "...and Adults" onto their product listings.
Certainly, a few years ago I wouldn't have thought about getting these kinds of things - They're for kids. They're cheap plastic, buying them is wasteful. As an Adult you're meant to just not Fidget, you don't need playthings, you've outgrown them. Owning them would be an Embarrassment. But now, now, I scroll through that hyper-coloured cornucopia of Sensory Enrichment and I want them all.
To help me tackle chewing my nails - today I ordered a Chewigem pendant, which should also be a healthier substitute to all the pen lids I inadvertently keep chewing to destruction too. It's literally just a pendant made of food-grade silicone; but I think that's a great idea. They don't last forever ("up to 8 weeks of use"), but - for me, that could potentially be 2 whole months of not biting my nails off!
Shake It Off
Another friend taught me about Trauma Release Exercises this year - and it further cemented the idea I had that random movement can be really good for you. Badly summarizing the linked article - After animals encounter something highly exciting, emotional or traumatic, they can release some of that pent-up, fight-or-flight stress, by literally shaking it away. Most of my movement is in order to try and get more dopamine flowing, not as a response to traumatic events, but nonetheless I tried TRE one-time, and I would recommend anyone try it. At its simplest, you just hold poses that your body is capable of holding without actually putting much strain on your muscles - but lo and behold after like 10 minutes you start full-body trembling, and afterwards it does feel like you've expelled stress from your system, and feel calmer and clearer-headed for it. It sounds like a fascinating and very useful assist for people healing from trauma, and I also wonder how good it is for everyone else, too! But more of the point I want to make here, is that movement as an effect of mental and emotional processing is buried deep within our evolution, yet we spend our formative years being taught to suppress it - when in some forms it can be very healthy for us.
So. What I'd like the take-away to this post, the essence of it, is...