Hand Flapping: Should I Be Worried? Does it Only Happen with Autism?
Hand flapping and arm flapping has become one of the more popularly recognized signs of autism. As with any concept that takes hold in our society, 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?
Should you freak out and immediately get your child to an occupational therapist?
Well, no. Let’s dig in!
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?
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!
Have you ever noticed that these reactions feel 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.
This isn’t the whole story though. Let’s dig more into how the sensory system works and why some kiddos re more prone to hand flapping than others.
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.
Hand flapping is a response triggered by an overwhelmed sensory system that wants to let out some energy. While hand flapping can be a sign of anxiety for this reason, some kiddos become accustomed to hand flapping and turn it into a habit.
What the heck is a stereotypy?
In the medical world, behaviors such as hand flapping are called “stereotypies.” You may be more familiar with the word “stimming” or “self-stimulatory behavior”—a stereotypy is the same thing.
Examples of stereotypies (self-stimming) include:
A study on repetitive hand and arm movements found some fascinating statistics on the prevalence of these behaviors. In their sample they found:
One of the most important things to note is that stereotypies don’t usually interfere with the ability to perform tasks. While they may be an involuntary, 98% of people in the study mentioned above were able to stop on cue. This makes stereotypies different from tics, seizures, or other involuntary movements we may encounter.
So, why is my child hand flapping exactly?
Basically, when your child gets excited or stressed, their brain doesn’t always have an outlet for the reaction. It’s like a scream canister that gets filled with too many screams and explodes.
At this point, you may be asking, “ok, but how does hand flapping actually help?” 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 (self-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.
As mentioned before, it’s important to keep in mind that your kiddo may now have a habit of hand flapping and simply prefer it as a method of self-stimming.
As also mentioned before, all of us engage in self-stimming. We tap our fingers when we’re nervous and jump up and down when we’re excited. These are examples of self-stimming, same as hand flapping.
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?
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.