Hand Flapping: What is this Type of Stimming?


As a parent, you have an Eagle eye for any new behavior that your child starts doing. If that behavior is hand flapping, you’ve come to the right place.

Hand flapping is a form of stimming that kids do to calm down, self-soothe, or regulate their bodies. It’s common when kids are excited, nervous, anxious, or having any other type of high emotion state. It can also become a habit. 

Let’s dig in to what hand flapping is.

As we move forward, please keep in mind that this is general information. This is not advice or and is not specific to your own child. If you have any concerns or questions about your child’s unique situation, please reach out to their pediatrician or occupational therapist.

What is hand flapping, exactly?

Hand flapping is a way to self soothe and regulate the body. Have you ever been nervous and realized that your leg was bouncing up and down uncontrollably? Well, you’ve experience self-soothing without even realizing it.

This self-soothing is also known as stimming, or self-stimulation. While it’s often associated with autism, all of us engage in stimming almost every day. Our bodies need it. It’s just that some bodies need it more than others.

Here are some examples:

The thing about hand flapping and other stimming behaviors is that they don’t always happen at the same time for the same reason. It really depends on the kiddo and the situation.

Let’s talk about a few different emotions and why hand flapping may show up when someone is feeling that way.

Excitement and Hand Flapping

Have you ever seen someone get so excited that they can’t help but throw their arms up and scream? Maybe you’ve been that person!

Now, I’m not just talking about planned excitement, like hugging someone or doing the wave or something. I’m talking about excitement that feels uncontrollable. One second, you’re sitting quietly and the next moment someone throws a puppy in your lap or your long lost best friend walks through the door and you get overwhelmed with excitement. Without even realizing it, you’re waving your hands, jumping around, and throwing an exuberant fit.  

Aside from how fun these reactions are, our bodies actually need this tom foolery in order to stay regulated. To best explain, let’s turn to Pixar.

In Monster’s Inc, screams are collected as energy. The more screams each monster can collect, the more full their canister gets. In the prequel, Monster’s University, one of the canisters becomes so full that it explodes. That scream energy has to go somewhere, right?

When we get excited, our sensory systems get overwhelmed. “What do we do with all of this extra input and excitement?” they ask.

Basically, the scream canisters of our sensory systems are bubbling over and the excitement needs to be let out however in whatever way possible. 

Hand flapping and arm flapping is a way to let the excitement out.

Excitement is a very common reason for kids to stim. In fact, a study on repetitive hand and arm movements found that 70% were triggered by excitement.

Anxiety and Hand Flapping

Remember that hand flapping is a self-soothing behavior? Well, here’s where the literal soothing comes in. 

You may notice that hand flapping increases when your child is nervous, anxious, or uncomfortable. Hand flapping makes them feel better.

If you’ve ever been nervous before a doctor’s appointment and noticed your legs jumping up and down, you know what I mean. It’s physically uncomfortable to stop your legs from bouncing all over the place. 

In the same way that your body needs to release excitement when it gets worked up, it also needs to release tension when it’s anxious.

In the spirit of everyone’s favorite ear worm, hand flapping is a way to “let it go.”

Habits and Hand Flapping

At this point, you may be thinking, “this is great, but my kid hand flaps ALL THE TIME! Not just when they’re excited or anxious.” There’s a reason for that.

We all like things that feel good and our kids are no different. Self-soothing behaviors feel good. 

Your child may not be especially excited or anxious in any given moment, but simply likes the feeling of stimming and has made a habit of it.

One of the most important things to note is that, while stimming may be involuntary, 98% of people in the study mentioned above were able to stop on cue.

Hand Flapping and Sensory Integration

As we go through our days, we constantly take in sensory information, send it to our brain, and then spit out a response. We hear our favorite song and start tapping our feet; we feel a tap on our shoulder and turn around; we smell some chocolate chip cookies and walk towards the kitchen.

If we don’t struggle with sensory issues, our bodies are generally great at taking in sensory information and processing it in a productive way. We generally don’t even notice it, as it is such a fundamental part of life.

That said, there are times when our brains just can’t handle the amount of sensory information we’re throwing their way. 

We get overwhelmed in a noisy shopping mall and walk outside; we hear a loud noise and cover our ears; we get exciting news and start jumping around like fools. Our scream canisters boil over and our sensory systems struggle to handle it.

Self-soothing behaviors are technically soothing our sensory systems. Our sensory system says, “Ah, I have too much input and I need to get rid of it somehow!” Hand flapping and other stimming behaviors are the sensory system’s way to re-regulate.

Think about a scream canister right before it explodes. It’s tight, stressed, and pressure-filled. That’s not a comfortable place to be in. 

When your kiddo hand flaps and stims, they let some of that pressure and excitement go. Eventually, they hand flap enough that their sensory systems start to re-regulate and they return to a calm place.

Hand Flapping and Sensory Processing Disorder

It’s common for kiddos with sensory challenges to stim. As we talked about, self-soothing is all about regulating the sensory system and managing sensory input that comes in. 

When kids struggle with sensory input to begin with, their bodies have to work extra hard to re-regulate.

The reason why some kiddos hand flap and others don’t is because all of our sensory systems handle sensory input differently and need different strategies for dealing with it. 

Diana

Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.

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