Fidgeting is Focusing for Those With ADHD

Why can’t you just sit still?

If you grew up with ADHD, there’s a good chance this question was burned into your brain, repeated daily by teachers and parents. Fidgeting is one of the most noticeable symptoms of ADHD in kids — and although hyperactivity tends to diminish with age, many fidgeting-type behaviors can persist into adulthood too.

For parents and teachers, fidgeting can also be one of the more irritating ADHD symptoms. From the outside, it sometimes seems like if this kid could just sit still and focus, everything would just be fine. Is that too much to ask?

So teachers and parents tell kids with ADHD to stop fidgeting. Kids with ADHD feel resentful, and if they stop, they don’t stop for long. Teachers and parents become increasingly exasperated. It’s a familiar pattern to anyone who grew up with ADHD or deals regularly with ADHD kids.

The good news, though, is that new research is finally starting to give us some hard data on how to break the cycle of fidgeting, scolding, relapse and exasperation that plays out in ADHD children’s classrooms and homes every day. And as is so often the case with ADHD, it turns out the obvious solution — trying to get especially fidgety kids to just settle down — is exactly the opposite of what the situation calls for.

Two studies published this year have shown that fidgeting in ADHD is not a problem in itself but actually a rather ingenious solution to the underlying attentional problem. For those with ADHD, fidgeting and moving around more than most is a way of increasing alertness and reaching a level of stimulation optimal for their brains.

Both studies one published in June in Child Neuropsychology, the other in April in Journal of Abnormal Child Psychologyshow that the more ADHDers fidget the better they do on tests of attention and cognitive performance. Importantly, the same is not true for those without ADHD. So kids with ADHD take fidgeting to the level of an art form at least partly because fidgeting helps them think while their non-ADHD counterparts fidget less because fidgeting just doesn’t do much for them.

Although the studies focused on children, it seems likely that adult ADHDers also fidget and move around for similar reasons. For both children and adults, the takeaway from the study is that finding socially acceptable ways to fidget (chewing gum, using stress balls, etc.) and working in settings that allow freer movement are good ways to get your brain fired up.

And for those dealing with ADHDers on a regular basis, there’s also a good takeaway: sorry, we know the H part of ADHD can be annoying as hell, but if we sit still, the underlying problem is actually going to get worse and we’re going to be even less productive.

Maybe the most interesting thing to notice here, though, is how little we still know about ADHD. Fidgeting and hyperactivity in general are considered “symptoms” of ADHD, but it’s starting to look more like they’re the ADHD brain’s DIY solution to a different underlying problem. Keep in mind that “symptoms” are somewhat socially defined although the science is starting to tell us that the inattention more than the hyperactivity seems to be the root problem in ADHD, both are equally socially unacceptable and therefore often get lumped together as equally problematic.

But in the case of fidgeting, the most socially acceptable way of dealing with the problem (fidgeting less) isn’t always going to be the most effective course of action. It could be the studies we’re seeing this year on fidgeting are what the future of ADHD research looks like more and more data telling us what many ADHDers have suspected all along, that the common sense approach to ADHD is exactly the wrong way to go. But hey, if there’s anyone comfortable flouting common sense it’s going to be an ADHDer, so I’d say we’re in good shape!

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