For people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fidgeting is often seen as a negative symptom. But what if it’s actually a functional component of the disorder — something that helps a person with ADHD concentrate?
An intriguing new study points to the possibility that such fidgeting helps increase a person’s alertness. But only if you have ADHD.
If you don’t have ADHD, fidgeting may actually decrease your cognitive performance, however.
The new study (Sarver et al., 2015) examined 29 boys (ages 8 through 12) with attention deficit disorder and 23 boys without it. The subjects were asked to complete a series of cognitive tasks, such as recalling a set of numbers back to the researchers.
Here’s the fidgety part — the children were seated in a swiveling office chair. For the ADHD boys, those who moved and spun in their chair performed better on the cognitive tasks. However, for kids without ADHD, spinning in the chair actually resulted in worst performance.
Here’s what NPR wrote about the study’s findings, offering a possible explanation as to why fidgeting helps people with ADHD:
Dustin Sarver at the University of Mississippi Medical Center is the lead author of this study. ADHD is his field, and he has a theory as to why fidgeting helps these kids.
“We think that part of the reason is that when they’re moving more they’re increasing their alertness.”
That’s right — increasing. The prevailing scientific theory on attention disorders holds that they are caused by chronic underarousal of the brain. That’s why stimulants are prescribed as treatment. Sarver believes that slight physical movements “wake up” the nervous system in much the same way that Ritalin does, thus improving cognitive performance.
It’s a small study, so I’m not sure we can go and make broad generalizations yet about its findings. But if confirmed, this research points to an intriguing alternative explanation for the functional purpose of fidgeting behavior in those with ADHD. That such behavior isn’t simply a side effect of ADHD — it’s actually helping the person’s brain.
Perhaps the age-old advice about telling kids to “sit still” only works for those children without ADHD. We shouldn’t go and tell kids with ADHD they can go and be disruptive in order to think better, but we could allow them some natural movement at their desk that is not disruptive to others (such as moving around in their chair).
And while this study wasn’t performed on adults, who knows? If you’re an adult with ADHD, try it for yourself and see if it helps at all with your ability focus or concentrate on a task at your desk.
For Further Reading…
Dustin E. Sarver, Mark D. Rapport, Michael J. Kofler, Joseph S. Raiker, Lauren M. Friedman. (2015). Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.