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Autistic Entrepreneur Credits Fidget Spinners For Her Path to Success

By Amy Zimmer | May 15, 2017 3:24pm
 Shira Mechanic is an autistic occupational therapy graduate student who sells fidgets.
Shira Mechanic is an autistic occupational therapy graduate student who sells fidgets.
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Shira Mechanic

MANHATTAN — Shira Mechanic, an autistic 27-year-old occupational therapy graduate student at NYU Steinhardt, has fidget spinners to thank for her career success.

The toys — which have exploded in popularity with students across NYC and the nation — are more than just entertainment for people like Mechanic, who said they helped her improve focus, as they do for others with autism, anxiety or attention disorders.

She started Fidget Club as an Etsy shop in 2014, selling handmade bike chain fidgets and “sensory bins,” which are tables or containers filled with water, sand or other materials. A year later, she launched her own website selling pre-made fidgets online and at autism and disability conferences.

“I sell the toys and tools that I love and that help me in my life,” said Mechanic, an Upper West Side resident, who views Fidget Club as a passion rather than a money-making business.  

While fidget spinners are believed to have been created by Catherine Hettinger in 1993, they have only recently caught on, followed by the wildly successful recent Kickstarter campaign for a fidget cube — with its buttons and switches you can fidget with — which sought to raise $15,000 and ended up raising more than $6.4 million.

Fidget spinners have gotten so popular that many schools have resorted to banning them — but at least one school with a program for students on the autism spectrum allows students with sensory issues to be exempt from the ban.

Mechanic thinks it’s unfortunate that the toys are getting a bad rap, and while she’s pleased there’s more attention being paid to the world of fidgets, she hopes it doesn’t negatively affect individuals like herself, who rely on the fidgets to help with sensory issues.

Here’s a Q & A with Mechanic:

Were you surprised to see fidget spinners go viral?

After the Fidget Cube Kickstarter went viral and fidgets were on the rise I expected some sort of fidget to take Fidget Cube’s place.

Fidget Cube created a market demand, and it was just waiting to be filled.

When I went to the Toy Fair at the Javits Center this year it was clear that fidget toys were a new trending concept in the toy industry. There were very few, if any, new good fidget products, but the general attitude towards me and my business changed dramatically.

Last year I would tell people about Fidget Club and they would ask, “What’s a fidget?” and would dismiss Fidget Club as an eccentric, niche company.

This year, everyone was asking me my opinions about their new fidget prototypes and complimenting my knowledge and foresight regarding current trends.  

I love fidgets as well as fidget spinners, so I think it is great that others are finally understanding the appeal of these items.

What about the backlash?

I do think that all the media attention given to unhappy teachers is unfortunate and could potentially harm individuals like myself who use fidgets as self-regulation and concentration tools.

I think that teacher education in key.

Fidgets aren’t appropriate for all students and generally work best when they are introduced to an individual in the context of using them as tools and in response to their specific sensory needs.

There are many fidget alternatives to spinners. Personally, I use a little metal spinner in all of my graduate classes, and no one even notices it. I find that spinners help me concentrate, reduce my anxiety, and help me sit still for longer periods of time.

I use larger and more potentially distracting fidgets when I am studying at home.

Are there educational uses for fidget spinners?

I have heard of teachers who are using their students’ interest in fidget spinners as part of their curriculum.

They are integrating fidget spinners into STEM lessons and are teaching principles of physics and AutoCAD through spinners. Utilizing students’ interests to promote learning goals rather than banning these interests is what separates a strong teacher from a rigid teacher. 

I also think that it is important to keep in mind what fidget spinners are replacing.

On my way to school everyday I usually see at least two or three people — usually kids — playing with fidget spinners.

In the past, these kids and adults would be on their smart phones or iPads while walking down the street. People playing with spinners are much more engaged in the environment than people who are texting on their phones, [so] I am quite pleased with their increased popularity!