Noise, sensory toys, and ADHD

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What is the nature of noise? Is it the murmur of twenty people talking, the roar of a hundred cars, the hum of a thousand air conditioners?

Is it an annoyance; a distraction? An unidentified squeak, an overheard phone call, a flash of movement outside the window? Noise is everywhere, and for someone with ADHD, distraction is an ever-present obstacle.

These questions are born out of a design evaluation of headphones. Their form, their use, the experience of buying and using them, and the role they serve in my life.

I am quite attached to my headphones — and they are nearly always attached to me. But, it may be interesting to note that I rarely, if ever, listen to music. I listen to podcasts, a habit which came out of a difficult transition in my early career, when the workload of several publications was consolidated into my responsibilities. With multiple, overlapping and conflicting deadlines, I could not afford to become distracted, and in trying to navigate that problem I found that listening to podcasts allowed me to stay focused and entertained while doing tedious work.

I used to think of my headphone use as a habituated, anti-social behavior, but in studying the function that they serve for me, I saw, as Paul Bennett puts it, “the blinding glimpse of the bleedingly obvious” that they are a productivity tool. This led me to researching attention and distraction, then ADHD coping mechanisms and cognitive behavior therapy, and finally the therapeutic function of fidgeting and sensory toys.

Current understandings of ADHD model it as a deficit in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, and an under-stimulated brain will seek out immediate stimulation while the person’s higher-functions are fairly helpless to intervene. Exerting will-power to stay on task doesn’t stimulate like the squirrel outside the window, so even with the ADHDer in their own driver’s seat, they are left to drift out-of-fuel and dozing at the wheel.

But the squirrel isn’t the answer either. Squirrels are never the answer! (Sorry, Mr. Squirrel.) While distraction is a loud impediment to focusing attention, it is not actually noise and that is the problem.

White noise and ambient sounds are not distracting because they have no content while drowning out the signals that do. Instead of an impediment, true noise is a loud nothingness which fades into the background.

But it also occupies a sense, and this is its true value. It puts parts of the brain not needed for higher cognition to work and floods the brain with dopamine!

In 2015 a school in Pasadena, Texas was facing a test-score crisis. Third and fourth graders at Turner Elementary were failing in huge numbers. While it concerned everyone, it surprised no one. These kids were picked out as an unusually hyperactive group every year since kindergarten. But with the start of the 2016-17 school year, Turner Elementary started using standing desks, balance boards, and foot pedals to engage the students with a physical activity while learning in a classroom. And the results have been tremendous. Other school districts which have used “fidget furniture” have seen higher grades and greater engagement from students. One school told the Houston Chronicle they had seen an improvement for 50 percentage points in math scores since adopting physical activity and fidgeting aids into the classroom in 2014.

Inspired by my research, “My Whole Life” is a design project telling a person’s experiences with ADHD through expressive typography and his own words.

Just Let Them Fidget” is a new idea in education, but some preliminary studies back the idea.

Fidgeting, it is thought, aids learning because stimulating the motor cortex and moving around releases epinephrin and dopamine. In fact, ADHD children are naturally fidgety. So much so that it is a diagnostic criteria of the disorder. The authors of the 2016 study suggest that fidgeting is a learned behavior for coping with the disorder’s symptoms.

And just like listening to white noise, fidgeting occupies a sense or portion of the brain with a mindless task. The extra activity in the brain allows the person to stay attentive while reducing the potential for external and internal distractions.

Because the difference between ADHD sufferers and a neuro-typical person is the frequency and intensity of problems everyone has, I can derive broader conclusions from investigating ADHD. And as a designer, investigating the ways that people fidget, self-soothe, or cope with sensory issues provides valuable insight into the ways senses can be engaged in other applications to a desired effect. Things like leading people through a composition or a space, attracting attention without overwhelming, and imbuing design work with elements that reinforce or make natural the desired outcomes.

In my design work, these have manifested as an interest in wayfinding and directing action, as attempts to combine type and image into succinct — not redundant — meanings, and as a profound, if also obsessive, understanding of noise and texture.