Not All Hand Flapping is Autism | The Case for Stimming

Hand Flapping when Excited That is not Autism

Let’s just get this out there–everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY stims. Yes, we all do it. But what it looks like for each person is different. Hand flapping is just one type of stim behavior. But since everybody stims, not every stim behavior is autism or sensory processing disorder.

Sensory processing refers to how our senses receive and process information. It includes perception of sights, sounds, touch and smell. I have a sensory seeker in my house who is autistic. I also have a sensory-averse child in my house who is not.

child waving her arms

Our brains are wired differently for each sense; some senses are more sensitive than others. Some people like a lot of noise and chaos when out in public, others do not. But we all have our own personal ways to process sensory information and give ourselves the sensory experiences our brain is craving.

When I lay in bed at night, watching mindless TV like Selling Sunset….that’s a self soothing behavior. My brain can no longer tolerate or process serious information. My body doesn’t even want to sit up anymore. I am giving myself the sensory experience that my brain is craving.

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And what happens if I don’t? I get irritable and bitchy.

But, sensory processing issues are just one component of autism. Yes, children with autism or ADHD or SPD are more likely than other children to have sensory processing issues.

But exhibiting a stim behavior by itself does not mean a child is autistic. Nor is it the end of the world if they are autistic–that’s a notion we need to do away with as well.

Environmental differences can cause sensory overload for a person who is unaccustomed to that stimulus. But it doesn’t always mean they have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory processing disorder (SPD).

If you have any other concerns about this, I would talk with your child’s teacher or pediatrician. You also should read up on your child’s interoception, as that is internal sensory processing. An OT or occupational therapist can answer questions about interoception and sensory processing.

Hand Flapping Not Autism

What can be different for autistic kids, is that many of them exhibit a lower tolerance for a lot of sensory input. Or, they are not as good at ‘masking’ their discomfort as neurotypical students.

Because some people have trouble managing their sensory input, they might exhibit unusual behaviors. By unusual, I mean less socially acceptable by most of today’s societal norms. That doesn’t mean those norms are correct and should be accepted without question, it just means it ‘is.’

For example, any child may flap their hands or jump when excited. Flapping the hands is known as “hand flapping” and it is not always an indication of ASD. It can be, when paired with other behaviors.

But, it can also just be an excited kid flapping their hands or arms because they are excited.

Think of a teacher telling a preschool class or kindergarten class about a surprise. Something like “Kids we’re going to go outside and there’s going to be ice cream!”

Can’t you just picture it? Upon receiving this information, some kids may jump up and down, some may squeal, some may grab a friend. And, some may flap.

kid holding ice cream cone

Hand flapping by itself is not a sign of autism.

There are many lists of signs of autism online, and again, talk with your pediatrician. What’s important to remember is acceptance of the neurodivergence.

What is Stimming?

Stimming is an adaptive behavior that most people do as a way of keeping themselves busy or self-soothe in situations where they may be under stress. Stimming is the common, slang term for self-stimulatory behavior.

It can be anything from picking one’s nails to banging on objects, like a desk or table. Or, hand flapping, touching or holding a preferred object, or using a fidget toy. Stimming is often a set of repetitive behaviors, or one behavior repeated over and over.

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For some people, it can mean running around and moving things back and forth with their hands. It’s common for children who have a sensory processing disorder to stim because they are overwhelmed by sensory input that they don’t understand and are trying to cope with.

That’s what a sensory processing disorder is: You have fewer typical skills to process sensory information. A loud noise may bother you more than it bothers others.

Other conditions that may have a sensory processing component to them include anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Fidget toys and other comfort items provide a tactile stimming experience.

Other stim behaviors or behaviors that help someone cope or process information are:

  • banging or touching something repeatedly
  • not being able to stop the behavior even when you ask them not to do it (can’t not won’t)
  • repetitive hand flapping
  • repeating words or phrases
  • repetitive body movements

Should you stop stimming?

The correct answer to this question is no.

A person who is stimming may have a developmental disorder like SPD or ADHD. Or they may not.

But, stimming behavior is done because the person needs to stim. Their brain is craving this sensory input. It helps them maintain an emotional state. Especially in stressful situations. It helps channel focus. It’s why we wear headphones during a dental drilling–so we can focus on music instead of the drill.

And, trying to stop stimming is futile. Sure, you may be able to curb it temporarily but if the person has this need in their brain, it will come out some how.

Let me give you an example. My sensory seeker, when he was little, craved big gross motor movements. In particular, bouncing.

Mind you, this as a little one, like 2-3. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Most importantly, I was worried about him bouncing off the bed and hurting himself. So, when I’d find him jumping on the bed, I’d block his access to the bed.

He’d go to his brother’s bed and jump on that. Blocked that as well. He’d then go to our room. Closed our bedroom door. (He couldn’t open door knobs due to lacking fine motor skills)

So…he’d come out and jump on the couch.

Finally, we bought one of those small trampolines that has a handle bar to hold on to. I placed it in our kitchen and main area, so that I could keep an eye on him. Problem solved.

But if he needed to bounce, he was going to bounce. He needed that sensory input and there was nothing I could do to satisfy that need.

The same can be said for almost all stimming. The need, the craving…it’s going to come out in some form.

Hand Flapping and Stimming in Public

If my son is stimming in public and you don’t want to see it, that’s mostly your problem. I mean, I don’t let him be loud and obnoxious in restaurants or disrupt others. But, he does do stim behaviors in public.

Instead of prohibiting the stimming and creating an unpleasant and no-win situation for everyone, I find more appropriate outlets. Self stim behaviors help him focus on what he wants to focus on, particularly if there is so much going on that it would be sensory overload for him.

I don’t necessarily agree with them, but social stigmas exist. People will stare at hand flappers, other finger mannerisms and such behaviors. I don’t know why so many think that a harmless child flapping their hands is a bad thing, but they do.

I have to balance his sensory needs with social stigmas, and allowing him to keep his dignity in public. It has taken some trial and error, but we have found smaller, quieter stim things that he enjoys and are not as noticeable or as stigmatizing as other forms.

Who does hand flapping?

Lots of people.

Do you ever watch American Ninja Warrior? Sometimes, while looking out over an obstacle, the Ninja Warriors will stand there and flap their hands. Yet, no one ever screams about them being autistic.

It’s just a release of energy. They are flapping away nervous energy so that they can focus on the next part of the course.

Hand flapping does not have anything to do with autism, although it might be a symptom of a sensory processing disorder. Sensory processing is a normal process that we all go through every day.

Flapping hands is an involuntary reflex activated during times of stress or anxiety. It’s usually seen in children and sometimes adults who have trouble filtering out irrelevant sounds, sights, smells and sensations in the environment.

A quiet space isn’t always available and hand flapping can be a release.

Hand Flapping, Autism and Public Perceptions

Wrapping up, indulge me to get on my soap box for a minute.

I can see what search terms bring people to this article. I can tell it’s mostly parents, hoping, praying…that their hand-flapping kid is not autistic.

There was a time when I had those biases myself.

If I had to give you…..you, the parent who came to this article, hoping to find validation that your child is not autistic…If I could give you one sentence, it would be:

Being Autistic/Disabled is not a tragedy; how society treats autistics and disabled people is the tragedy.

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