The so-called fidget toys making their way into classrooms across North America are billed as a way to soothe restless kids and help them focus. But some experts say they might be harming as many children as they help.

The spinning, buzzing, clicking devices are especially aimed at children who have issues with attention or concentration or sensory difficulty, like those diagnosed with autism or related disorders.

'We call them fidget tools because they really are tools.' - Terri Duncan, Children's Autism Services of Edmonton

Scholar's Choice, a chain of educational toy stores, sells more than 80 such products on its website.

"Fidgets are designed to help children with special needs focus or cope with their need to be constantly moving. They also help children focus their thoughts and stay calm," the store says

Terri Duncan, of Children's Autism Services of Edmonton, swears by them.

"We call them fidget tools because they really are tools," she told CBC News. "Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It's a little bit different for every child."

There are fidget spinners and fidget cubes, squishy balls, fuzzy rings, tangle puzzles, putty and even chews — colourful, tactile objects to meet the distinct needs of the children she sees.

"It also can prevent kids from chewing on their fingers, from picking at their hands, picking at their clothes, that sort of thing," Duncan says.

Too distracting

But more and more children are using them to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety.

Dr. Jennifer Crosbie, a clinical psychologist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, agrees fidget toys can be useful but says the new devices are more toy than tool and aren't likely to have the desired effect.

"They definitely don't have the attributes that are generally associated with the kinds of fidget and sensory toys that are traditionally used with kids with a range of conditions," Crosbie told CBC News.

For one thing, a fidget toy should involve some movement or motion on the part of the child using it, which allows them to release excess energy.

"It actually kind of addresses that need to move around and allows them to be focusing on something else," Crosbie says.

fidget toys

Fidget toys come in a variety of styles. An effective one should involve some movement or motion on the part of the child using it, which allows them to release excess energy. (Scholar's Choice)

Some of the more popular devices now sold in toy stores, dollar stores and online, like the fidget spinner, require little more than a flick of the finger; the toy does all the moving.

Not only does it not provide the motor outlet, it's also distracting.

"What's different about these kinds of objects is they do draw your attention," Crosbie says.

"Optimally a fidget toy that's going to be effective isn't going to draw my attention to it as the person who's using it, and it's also not going to be distracting to the people around me."

Restricted use

In fact, some schools are restricting the use of the flashy, noisy spinners. A teacher in New Brunswick confiscated seven in one day when their owners broke the school's rules for how to use them.

But Winnipeg student Connor Peterson has been given permission to use his. The 12-year-old has misophonia, which is a hatred of certain noises, and the condition has led to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

He says the spinner really helps him.

"It's like my go-to thing, I just keep on spinning it," he says. "Every time I spin it, it makes me feel a whole lot better, I don't know why."

Peterson says there were times he had to leave the classroom until his symptoms subsided, but now he can stay put.

His mom, Wanda, says the school has been very accommodating for her son so far.

"They've made all sorts of conditions for him; I think this is another one. They're pretty good about stuff like that."

Connor Peterson

Conner Peterson, 12, has misophonia, which has led to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. He says his fidget spinner helps deal with his symptoms. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Winnipeg psychologist Kirsten Wirth says there isn't enough evidence that the toys actually help kids focus.

"There's a difference between what we call anecdotal evidence and what the research actually shows," Wirth said. "Because there might be a bit of a placebo effect happening where we feel like something is helping, but it may or may not actually be helping."

To be most effective, Crosbie says, fidget toys should be selected to suit the attributes of the individual child, in discussion with parents, teachers and other experts, as in Peterson's case.

"I actually hold fidget toys up as ... a really good example of how not all accommodations and recommendations work equally for individuals," Crosbie says. "For some kids it can be really helpful. But for an equal number of kids it ends up being a bit of a distraction and doesn't actually help in the way we hope it does."

With files from CBC's Brett Purdy, Rachel Cave