The fidget spinning fad and disability discrimination

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 21, 2017

Here’s an important article by Aiyana Bailin, who argues that the recent fidget spinning fad shows something disturbingly:

Something that was considered entirely pathological and in dire need of correction when done by disabled people is now perfectly acceptable because it is being done by non-disabled people

So here we see disability discrimination at work. For some neuro-atypical and disabled people, stimming is a way to reduce stress, and indeed also to concentrate better. But often they are told not to do this. The same holds for other forms of behaviour that neurotypicals consider ‘abnormal’. The fidget spinning just shows how much of a social convention, and hence form of domination, those social norms regarding ‘normal behaviour’ are, and that at least some of those conventions are biased against the needs of some groups of disabled people and neuro-atypicals.

Earlier this week, I came across another example. A therapist told me that social skills training for autistics entails, among other things, that they learn to look at the eyes of another person when talking to them. But why would that be a desirable good? What, except for some social convention, would make it that it is considered inappropriate not to look at the person you’re talking to? Why can’t we just accept it to be as it is – that for some people, it’s easier to have a conversation if they do not have to look you into the eyes?

But the good news is that the article by Aiyana Bailin gives us an opportunity to learn something. I suspect it will eye-opening to many of us. It’s an example of how disability discrimination works, and examples may well be more effective in showing the working of disability discrimination than some abstract theory. Yet it’s an example of a more general problem that Bailin wants to draw our attention to:

But the power structure is still there. There’s still a rigid hierarchy of who gets to decide which behaviors are normal or pathological. There’s still a societal subtext that tells people who are different “be less like yourself and more like us.” We need to work on that.



Ebenezer Scrooge 05.21.17 at 10:24 pm

Every social construct creates a power structure. Should we smash them all? I don’t think that Bailin, or Robeyns, would answer “yes.” The trick is to distinguish legitimate social constructs from illegitimate ones, and accept the power relations of the former. But how to do this?
And what do we do about the latter? We don’t really know how to create (or re-create) social constructs. Our marketing overlords try all the time, and often enough fail. We can’t even destroy them at will: disability is a great example. We try to weaken stigma by renaming, but every new name picks up the same old stigma.


JM Hatch 05.22.17 at 12:33 am

Isn’t the process described how norms of behavior get set? and discrimination against any non-conformance depends on the setting of norms. Children who are dressed outside the class norms for their school, for what ever reason, will often be bullied for their appearance. Drive a beat up or unwashed car and you’re far more likely to be ticketed.

The question is just a special case of justice, or the lack there of.


F 05.22.17 at 1:57 am

But why would that be a desirable good?

Not to force them to do something that makes them uncomfortable but to teach them a skill that is advantageous to them. As long as they are capable of learning it, of course.


derrida derider 05.22.17 at 4:48 am

“social skills training for autistics entails, among other things, that they learn to look at the eyes of another person when talking to them … What, except for some social convention, would make it that it is considered inappropriate not to look at the person you’re talking to? Why can’t we just accept it to be as it is – that for some people, it’s easier to have a conversation if they do not have to look you into the eyes?”

You sound like my adult high-functioning autistic son, who is prone to dismiss ALL social conventions as “irrational”. And so they are, but it is irrational to think that anyone can function in any society without having some grasp of them. Because it is in the nature of humans (including, I’ve noticed, distinctly non-neurotypical humans) to discriminate against anyone who does not follow those conventions, whatever they may be; as Ebenezer notes, they serve inter alia to create power hierarchies.

It’s an attitude that has brought my son (and me) nothing but heartache, so I feel strongly about this.


Ingrid Robeyns 05.22.17 at 6:25 am

Derrida Derider, you’re right in one sense – I think all social norms and conventions should be scrutinised, and those that are discriminating on grounds of gender, ability, race, age etc. should either be dropped (if they don’t serve a useful function) or they should be changed (if they do). Another example is boys being punished if they want to wear pink (when they are young) or make-up (when they are a bit older). I would want to live in a society where people don’t care about these things – since these social norms don’t serve a useful function, they are only there to create social constructs of hierarchy (in this case gender).

Social norms against stimming are ones that is really discriminating, since some disabled people *need* stimming techniques for their well-being, and if the non disabled majority pathologises that behaviour, we are simply harming them. That may be an uncomfortable truth, but I take it this blog is a space where we can talk about those issues. Outside in the real, nasty world, it is more difficult; sometimes one can change a micro-cosmos (e.g. in larger family settings people it may be possible to explain people why this behaviour is not pathological but the norm should change), but clearly one can’t talk to the outside world like this. For the outside world, my strategy would be to try to change it little by little (and I think Bailin’s post aims to do that, via creating insight), yet you also need to protect your child given that you can’t change the entire world all at once. Sometimes compromises are possible (e.g. stimming in way that makes it less likely that a social norm is transgressed. For example, some autistic teens still want to walk around with their cuddles; in the outside world, you can try to convince them to have a small bear that is attached to their backpack).


Ingrid Robeyns 05.22.17 at 6:36 am

Ebenezer Scrooge #1: “We don’t really know how to create (or re-create) social constructs”.

I am less pessimistic then you about this. Sure it’s hard, but entire social movements try doing this (since many social norms are also oppressive on ground of race, gender, age, sexual orientation etc.) I would agree it’s hard and it will take a long time. This is part of what social activism is about. And one can see that we got rid of a lot of social norms that were oppressive on grounds of gender and race. In my view, articles such as Bailin’s are exactly contributing to that process of social change.


Gareth Wilson 05.22.17 at 6:48 am

Isn’t not looking someone in the eye a microaggression?


Ingrid Robeyns 05.22.17 at 7:52 am

Gareth Wilson – really? Why would that be so? If in some societies it is, this should be reconsidered, given neurodiversity and the aim of being an inclusive society.


Moz of Yarramulla 05.22.17 at 8:01 am

Isn’t not looking someone in the eye a microaggression?

So is looking them in the eye. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

{stares intently at your eyes} You got a problem with that?

The eye contact thing is a giant pile of social clues and context, which a lot of people get “wrong” and in general no two judges can agree on (which is awful if your freedom depends on the judges agreeing). It has sometimes-amusing side effects, like my attempts to fake “normal eye contact” being interpreted as an expression of interest (the pre-flirting stage), or very occasionally, hostility. But I also get that from women, sometimes unintentionally. The whole “stand in close and stare at someone’s eyes” thing is generally somewhere along the spectrum from “I think of myself as a happy fairy” to “you gotta problem with that!”.


Moz of Yarramulla 05.22.17 at 8:09 am

Across cultures, there are a fair few places where eye contact is something superiors do to those below them. Even the English do this to a degree “stared boldly at the king” for example. I get the feeling many east asian cultures are like this, where in general people don’t make eye contact but drop their gaze when looked at. It’s considered polite.

The avoidant gaze is problematic in some western cultures, and I get the impression more so in the USA than elsewhere, where it would be described as exactly that avoidant. “Honestly meeting someone’s eye” is considered more important than being polite or not challenging people, and it’s often considered problematic to drop ones gaze – are you staring at their tits? I think there’s also a degree of standing up for yourself – a direct gaze *is* challenging, and that’s more widely accepted that the casual claims would have you believe. Asking someone who says its not how they feel about staring at biker gang members and Secret Service agents :)

Then of course there are animals. General eye contact is made by dominant members, or as a display of dominance.


SusanC 05.22.17 at 9:09 am

With neurotypical people, seeing the direction of the other person’s gaze provides additional information that helps disambiguate what they’re saying verbally (the unconcious rules are very subtle).. From the people with autism I’ve talked to about this, it’s often an issue of monotropism (they can concentrate on either eye gaze or speech, but not both at once, so looking at someones eyes while trying to understand what they’re saying is counterproductive), or that they find direct eye gaze too intimate.

(There is some really col research being done in this area).


Salem 05.22.17 at 9:21 am

The fidget spinning just shows how much of a social convention…


and hence form of domination



Gareth Wilson 05.22.17 at 9:40 am

“If in some societies it is, this should be reconsidered, given neurodiversity and the aim of being an inclusive society.”

That sounds reasonable, but doesn’t the offended minority get to decide what a microaggression is, and the majority has to apologise and immediately change their behaviour, regardless of their actual motivations?


Peter T 05.22.17 at 10:16 am

In Iran, direct eye contact is considered rude, so avoidance is the rule. It can be deference (as in the interview with the Shah that sank Bazargan’s credentials with the protest movement), but usually it’s more like the polite subjunctive in language. After a while, a western direct gaze feels like a poke in the ribs.


SusanC 05.22.17 at 10:28 am

I wonder if anyone is going to dare make the comparison with the Tuvel paper on Nkechi Amare Diallo…

If the issue is that many people with autism spectrum conditions would really, really, like to be able to communicate more effectively with neurotypicals, then teaching them how to do so seems completely OK.

But when does this become racial “passing”? If neurotypicals benefit from making eye contact, but some people with autism don’t benefit from it, and only do it when they’re trying to “pass” as a neurotypical, is this really different from Diallo’s suntan?

(If you think it matters to the discussion which culture is the minority one, is this like selling skin-whitening products to African-Americans? The exact causes of autism are still unknown, but are shaping up to be just as genetic/biological as your skin colour).


Dipper 05.22.17 at 10:33 am

@ derrida derrida – that for some people, it’s easier to have a conversation if they do not have to look you into the eyes?

Occasionally when recruiting we would do pair interviews and I would be the senior interviewer. Generally I would not look at the person, and not really listen to what they were saying, because I did not want to get drawn into the story they wanted to tell me or to experience empathy with the interviewee. Instead I was just listening for pauses, for the voice going up a semi tone. At that point I’d butt in “tell me more” because I sensed we had hit something they didn’t really want to talk about.

I don’t think I’m autistic (although family members frequently disagree) but you get something different from a conversation when you don’t look at the other person.


Belle 05.22.17 at 11:32 am

What really gets me is what is called a social norm. They are being called a fad. As children who suffer stress and anxiety started to use them. Then every other child took it up because society children of normal development see these children with something different. Then want one as well and many parents can’t say no. I thought this then thought to myself. We don’t want our children being seen as different and as outsiders. So if they come me together over a bleeden toy. Who could care less. The one thing I studied about in positive psychology is the effects of happiness and creativity on others. So shouldnt it be about each individual and about being person centred?! Stuff social norms and stuff what others thing or if they name it a fad! Get over it!


Matt 05.22.17 at 4:09 pm

Very interesting stuff, Ingrid. In all of these training cases, I guess I’d want to be sure that the people doing them have the goal of helping people get along in society more easily, rather than just normalizing them for their own sake. The first goal seems worthy to me, while the second obviously isn’t.

On the “fidget” thing, my wife works as a simultaneous interpreter a fair amount, and when she does it, she very often has a little springy chord like thing (like a bracelet you might use to hold keys, or the like) that she twists and ties in knots with one hand. She tells me that doing it helps keep her focused on the (rather draining) task, putting things that would otherwise distract her into the item, as it were.


EB 05.22.17 at 5:17 pm

This is the familiar tug of war between social norms (which are necessary and exist in every culture and subculture) and greater acceptance of difference in action or opinion. It becomes especially troublesome with populations of people who suffer actual pain or discomfort if they are required to meet social expectations. Eye contact expectations vary from culture to culture (as noted), so maybe it’s realistic to expect that we can adapt to person-to-person variations. And at least that’s easier than adapting to some other behaviors that people with autism may find it hard to control, such as loud vocalizations in a classroom setting.


Ivo 05.23.17 at 3:26 pm

“What, except for some social convention, would make it that it is considered inappropriate not to look at the person you’re talking to?”

For instance the fact that it is much harder to tell if someone is lying when they are not looking at you. Which is why we intuitively mistrust people that don’t look at us when we are talking to them. No amount of indignation is going to change a behavior that has prehistoric origins.


Cranky Observer 05.23.17 at 4:55 pm

= = = For instance the fact that it is much harder to tell if someone is lying when they are not looking at you. = = =

Hmmmm. In the business world at least I find that people with firm deep voices who look you firmly in the eye are lying about 80% of the time, so I’m not sure your analysis is as universal as you expect.


RonM 05.23.17 at 8:26 pm

I wonder if the reason why the fidget-spinner use is more-or-less accepted behavior is that, previously, the looking away, fidgeting, etc., non neurotypical behavior was seen as a potential status-challenge, requiring or allowing the locally higher-status person to assert their status (by demanding, or by providing an opportunity to demand, neurotypical status-acknowledgement behavior) lest everyone around think it can be successfully bypassed, whereas the spinner is seen as a common fad and the higher-status person can safely ignore it. If so, perhaps it’s a hopeful sign for raising general awareness that folks need to behave differently in different situations.


Moz of Yarramulla 05.24.17 at 10:07 am

Ivo@20 For instance the fact that it is much harder to tell if someone is lying when they are not looking at you.

Tests show that most people are less than 50% accurate at that under optimal conditions. Sadly there’s a low-to-negative correlation between self-perceived and actual skill in that area (most notably, law enforcement people have been studied extensively and once you correct for cheating they suck as badly as everyone else (cheating meaning using lies like “we will let you go if you confess” and similar techniques)).

If you want to know whether someone is lying you’re better off flipping a coin.


J-D 05.25.17 at 3:40 am

If you want to know whether someone is lying you’re better off flipping a coin.

In the general case, people tell the truth more often than they lie (if this were not true both telling the truth and lying would be useless). So in the general case you’re better of assuming truth as the default.


adam.smith 05.25.17 at 3:42 am

So, I completely support accomodating the needs of folks on the autism spectrum, allowing stimming, being mindful about how behaviors we “expect” can be extremely stressful for some people, etc.

But where on earth are fidget spinners “socially acceptable” in classrooms and similar stituations? The teachers I know (who are happy to accomodate the needs of non-neurotypical students) hate them. So I really don’t get what the spinners have to do with this. If anything, it’s a counterproductive argument.


Loki 05.25.17 at 6:38 am

I disagree with some of what is written in the OP and the linked to article.

First, there is little that is new about fidget spinners. Vast numbers of people have used repetitive movements to help them concentrate, perhaps for ever. Before the fidget spinner, stress balls were sold commercialize fidgeting. I have no doubt that in a few years time there will be another similar product. Back when I was a child sitting exams 30 years ago, were advised to take in chewing gum (usually banned in class) if chewing for hours helped us to concentrate. My current preferred method of fidgeting is cost free, I just touch the ends of each my fingers against my thumb, and can can keep that up for a long while.

Second, as with so many other aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder, the issue isn’t so much with individual forms of behavior, but intensity, duration and context. To take a real world example, a child talking at length about aircraft to other people who are interested in aircraft is a sign of nothing more than a hobby. But a child who frequently walks up to strangers and intensely talks about aircraft long after they have made pretty obvious signals (to all but the child) that they’d like the conversation to stop is seen as displaying behaviour that would contribute to an ASD diagnosis. So there is an important difference between someone using a fidget wheel (or stress balls, or gum, or just old fashioned fidgeting) and someone displaying behavior that would form part of a diagnosis of ASD (the latter is all about intensity, duration and context).

I take your point about society pathologizing people people who are merely different. And there is a long history of people who have written about that concerning mental health in general. But then I’m not sure where to draw the line. I’m very much in favour of society accepting all sorts of different ways of thinking (I have a few of my own). But, importantly, I’ve also seen diagnosis and treatment of what have been called cognitive problems make a very big difference in people’s lives – eg meaning that they can pass exams and get a job, as opposed to likely long term unemployment.


Ingrid Robeyns 05.25.17 at 7:16 pm

Loki @26 – thanks for your comments; I agree with what you say in the last paragraph of your post. It’s often complicated and what is the right thing to do should, in my view, be judged case by case. But that doesn’t take away the general issue (on which I think we agree) that even if it is true that many individuals with ASD and their families would benefit a lot from various therapies, so much harm could be prevented if society would just be more relaxed towards issues related to mental health, being different, etc. (and that’s not just for autistics, but for various other forms of diversity).


John Quiggin 05.26.17 at 6:28 am

One thing that has struck me for some time is that the advent of mobile phones and smartphones has generated, and made acceptable, a lot of preoccupied public behavior that would once have been stigmatized. I can remember the first time I saw someone engaged in an animated conversation without a phone obviously in hand. It struck me as very odd, but now it’s routine.


bekabot 05.26.17 at 6:08 pm

Many years ago I took a class intended to teach people from different cultures how to communicate with each other in a business setting. I’m On The Spectrum and have been taught not to look away from other people’s eyes. Anyway, I ended up making a short presentation to a woman of Russian extraction. And guess what? She asked me to stop staring at her so hard; she found it offensive.


drveen 05.27.17 at 5:08 pm

While I can be sympathetic to the person who finds it difficult to go without these crutch behaviors, I’m not at all surprised or offended by the effort to help them to get over it. “Neurotypical” folks read the strangeness/inappropriateness of the other as a sign that they’re not on the same page, and that opens up the question of just _how far_ off the same page the other is, to the possible extent of being a dangerous threat. Consider the last time you were spooked by the stranger near you who kept displaying “inappropriate” physical ticks, muttering, etc..

Seeing that the autistic, whatever, person is not actually threatening, and trying to help them to minimize the display of these behaviors is not a “power move” but an act of compassion to help them to not be viewed as dangerous/scary/distrubing by “normal” folks.

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