Hand flapping, does it mean autism? I know that before I gained some real insight into the diagnosis that hand flapping was something I immediately related it to. It feels ridiculous to me now that I made this assumption with the knowledge that I have since gained, but it seems to be a stereotypical view that many people have?
Funnily enough I have a daughter with autism that has never performed the stimming behaviour of hand flapping, however I have taught many children that do engage in this action as a result to cope with their environment.
So, what is it? Does it raise the red flag for an autism diagnosis? What should be done about hand flapping? All questions that will be addressed throughout this blog.
Why do some children engage in hand flapping?
In a nutshell hand flapping is simply a form of stimming.
Think about what you do if your're nervous, or excited? Do you naturally pace the room or bite your nails, if so, this is your way to subconsciously cope with heightened emotions?
Essentially, it’s an action that is performed when the sensory system has received too much input and it’s a way to get rid of or calm some of that energy. For individuals that don’t have difficulty processing sensory information they adapt and engage with their senses without much thought. For somebody that isn’t quite sure how to manage their senses and deal with heightened emotions (excited, anxious, or nervous) they will often resort to self-stimming behaviours and repetitive movements.
Is hand flapping a sign of Autism?
While hand flapping is often associated with autism it doesn’t necessarily mean that all children who engage in this repetitive behaviour will be diagnosed with ASD. There is a little more to it than that and the reality is all children engage in their own sort of stimming behaviours. It may purely be a way that a child expresses their emotions, and it can be common for younger children.
If your child exhibits this behaviour and shows some other key autism traits, then perhaps it could be a sign. Some other behaviours to look out for could be.
-Not answering to name
-Lack of eye contact
-Fixation on interests
-Sensory aversions or seeking
-Delay in social skills
-Difficulty regulating emotions
-Need for routine
Autism is an umbrella term in which all individuals present differently and have their own unique challenges. The above list are a few (key word being few!) examples that may be applicable for some individuals and not for others. But hand flapping itself doesn’t warrant a red flag for autism. While I am not a health care professional by any means, if your child is engaging in this form or stimming behaviour and it’s raising some concern for you? Perhaps start writing down when and why your child is hand flapping and take note of any other behaviours that are causing any alarm.
What are stimming behaviours?
Perhaps I lost you at stimming, and you’re thinking ‘What the hell is she on about’. If that’s the case you’re not alone, my daughter has many stimming behaviours and my husband just realised what they meant through reading one of my blogs the other day, so you’re not alone there.
So, let’s take it back…stimming meaning.
Essentially it is a repetitive or unusual movement or noise that individuals will engage in to help bring calmness, to self sooth, regulate and to assist in managing emotions. I mentioned that my daughter has never engaged in hand flapping, however she has other stimming behaviours that comfort her.
-She talks in a baby voice when she is excited
-She chews on things when she is anxious or worried
-She bites at her nails when she is nervous
-She makes forceful repetitive movements when she is angry
-She repeats herself over and over when she is feeling excited, anxious, or worried
-She picks at things when she is anxious
I could go on, but you get the gist. Stimming behaviours are simply just a way for her to cope and manage, habits that she has naturally formed that bring some calmness and normalcy back to her world.
Other types of stimming behaviours.
Hand and finger stimming
Hair twirling or pulling
Fidgeting with fingers or objects
Picking at things
Tapping a pencil
Scratching at things
Rubbing or stroking objects or people
Walking on tiptoes
Unusual body movements, patterns or posturing
Visual stimulation (staring at lights)
Rearranging things over and over
Repetitive behaviour (flicking light switches on and off/opening and closing doors)
Repeating the same words or phrases
Listening to the same song or noise over and over
Excessive rubbing or scratching
Picking at sores
Launching at someone (throwing body weight on your safe person)
Should you stop your child from hand flapping?
Autistic stimming is a very natural way to bring calmness and reduce anxiety; there is no need to intervene. It is also very difficult to just get someone to stop stimming as it’s usually an everyday occurrence of repetitive behaviours and can sometimes last hours.
Sometimes autistic stimming in children naturally decreases, or changes, as they grow older. It may be that they find other ways to cope, become aware of triggers or find milder stimming behaviours.
There is no need to try to stop stimming, but it may need to be controlled if,
-Behaviours start to become harmful to themselves or others around them
-It begins to cause social isolation
-Becomes disruptive to others
-Causes problems for home
If there becomes the need to intervene it is important to firstly speak with your child's therapist. But I think it's vital to try not to punish the behaviour. Instead, perhaps try to look at triggers before the hand flapping occurs. Maybe then, these triggers can be dealt with first and it may ease the intensity and frequency.