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Hand Flapping: Should I Be Worried? Does it Only Happen with Autism?
Hand flapping or, arm flapping, has become one of the more popularly recognized signs of autism. As with any concept that becomes well known, we have to deal with both the positives and negatives of it.
We also have to deal with the confusion.
In one sense, it’s great that the potential signs of autism are becoming more widely known.
Three cheers for autism awareness!
In another sense, assuming that hand flapping=autism is far too simplistic and fails to understand the nuances behind the behavior. In all the confusion, the #1 question becomes “when should I worry?”
So, you’re a parent of a child (with autism or not) and you see them starting to flap their hands. Given everything you’ve heard about hand flapping from the media and greater society, you start to panic.
What does this mean?
Let’s dig in to what hand flapping is and whether your should be worried.
As we move forward, please keep in mind that this is general information and is not specific to your own kiddo. 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 bounding up and down uncontrollable? 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 use the best teacher of all–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. Especially for our kiddos with autism, habits are quick to form and they can be powerful.
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. This makes stimming different from tics, seizures, or other involuntary movements we may encounter.
Ok, now that we have our basics covered, we’re leaving an important piece out of this puzzle. Let’s dig more into how the sensory system works and why some kiddos are more prone to hand flapping than others.
It's all about...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.
We get overwhelmed in a noisy shopping mall and walk outside; we hear a loud noise and cover our ears; we have perseverative behaviors; 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.
The moral of the story is that kiddos engage in hand flapping because it calms them down. And calming down feels good.
Hand Flapping and Sensory Processing Disorder
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. Some of us are more sensitive, which may result in more hand flapping. While, others of us aren’t.
If your kiddo is hand flapping, it’s likely their bodies are more sensitive to sensory input.
Is hand flapping a sign of autism?
Yes and no. A lot of kids with autism participate in hand flapping, but not all kids who participate in hand flapping have autism. So, while hand flapping is one of the more obvious signs of autism, it doesn’t mean that autism is in the cards 100%.
Some kiddos engage in hand flapping when excited, not autism related at all. Other times, autism could be at play. If you child starts hand flapping, it’s best to check in with a pediatrician or occupational therapist. Hand flapping alone is definitely not justification for an autism diagnosis, but you will want to investigate it further.
If your child starts hand flapping, be observant about the circumstances under which it’s happening. Is your child excited, stressed, or fatigued? Does it happen at certain times or places? The more information you can gather, the easier it will be for a profession to determine what’s going on.
When should I worry about hand flapping?
If your kiddo is engaging in self-harming behaviors, stop reading right now and contact a medical professional for help. From a physical standpoint, stimming and hand flapping are rarely hazardous. That said, stimming is a term that can be applied to any number of behaviors, some of which may not be safe. If your child hits their head against a wall in order to self-stim, for example, it may be best to redirect that behavior.
With hand flapping and any other stimming behaviors, be on the lookout for anything that may cause injury.
The next potential problem is when a child’s stimming behaviors are negatively impacting the other tasks they have to complete in a day. If your child struggles to complete their homework because they don’t want to stop hand flapping, you may want to chat with your occupational therapist about redirection strategies.
A study found that self-stimming can interfere with spontaneous play. Even if your kiddo’s stimming isn’t inherently harmful, if it prevents them from completing the tasks they need to do to learn and grow they could fall behind.
If your child self-stims but can be easily redirected to complete their tasks when needed, there’s likely no harm in it.
One of the bigger issues we see with hand flapping is the social stigma surrounding it. Unfortunately, we live in a society where anything “different” is looked at strangely, if not questioned. Kids can often be embarrassed by their self-stimming behaviors and, if they’re not, their parents may be. This is nothing to be ashamed of! It can be challenging enough to go to the grocery store with kids in tow, let alone with everyone staring at your child’s hand flapping.
None of us like to admit we’re embarrassed by our kids, especially when it relates to behaviors we know our kids can’t control. That said, we need to have this hard conversation with ourselves and understand exactly why we’re concerned about the self-stimming behaviors we’re seeing in our kids. Is there a valid concern here? Or, is it just different?
As with anything, check in with your child’s occupational therapist before making any decisions or taking any action.
How do I stop hand flapping?
Talk with your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician before ever trying to shape their behavior. This article is solely informational and should never be applied to your child without professional consult.
As we mentioned above, a study found that 98% of stimming could be stopped when cued. This means that asking a child to stop is extremely effective. That said, this neglects the reason why they were stimming in the first place. If a child is anxious, overly excited, or agitated in some way, asking them to stop stimming may make the situation worse. If you want a child to decrease their hand flapping and other stimming behaviors, figure out why their doing it in the first place and how you can address the root of the issue.
Another interesting solution is physical exercise. A study found that kids decreased their self-stimulatory behaviors and increased their interest in tasks after a period of exercise.
Again, if your kiddo is causing any harm to themselves because of their stimming, seek medical advice immediately. In general, it’s best to check in with your child’s care team to make sure that you understand their specific stimming behaviors and what you may need to do to address them.