Hand Flapping in Kids with Autism
These self stimulatory behaviors keep our neurons firing when we are not engaged with others. Or when we are working on a task where we need to concentrate. Since children with autism usually have poor language, social and leisure skills, some kids with autism engage in self stimulatory behavior for hours each day.
These stim behaviors are often very disruptive across a variety of settings and impact a child’s ability to learn new skills. Hand-flapping is one of those self stimulatory behaviors. Often kids hand flap on the sides or in front of their face. Or a child may even take an object like a pen and wave it in front of their face too. These are all considered hand flapping.
What Is Hand Flapping?
Hand flapping can be a sign of autism and is a repetitive movement that’s quite common. It’s not always a sign of autism, but could also be a sign of ADHD or a speech delay. Take a look at my blogs on how to tell if it’s ADHD versus autism and Is it a speech delay or autism? for more information on that. However, if your child is stimming, no matter what their age is, and they are hand flapping for long periods of time, it’s almost always impeding his or her learning and socialization.
Some kids like my son, Lucas, stim while watching TV or playing on his iPad. When he was little, he used to get so over-excited that occasionally he’d hand flap with excitement. He also had vocal stims where he’d make noises while hand flapping. This not only impacted his learning but was also really disruptive and embarrassing – especially in places like churches where everybody’s supposed to be quiet.
Kids can also flap objects in front of their faces to stim. One client I worked with liked to wave straws in front of his face and another gravitated towards flapping pencils. Another liked the spatula in the toy kitchen at preschool. She would flap that spatula in front of her face even when she wasn’t playing with the kitchen. We actually had to hide it because it was such a problem. She would run into preschool and she would run to grab the spatula to begin flapping.
When to Worry About Hand Flapping
Many people do not believe that we should consider stimming and arm flapping to be a problem behavior, or that we should try to reduce it. I usually agree with this, as long as the individual is safe and not engaging in harmful stimming behaviors. I believe that as long as the behavior, such as arm flapping when excited, does not get in the way of learning, then we do not need to directly address the behavior. What we can do and need to do is work with a child to increase language and learning skills while also increasing their access to leisure activities.
You may be asking what does stimming mean? It is a repetitive behavior that involves movements or sounds. An example could be when a child continuously rocks their body, it might be indicative of over-excitement and autism. However, a simple thing like tapping a foot when nervous is stimming could have nothing to do with autism.
It is seen that some children carry out hand flapping during the initial stages of development. It is not uncommon to see a young toddler hand flapping but what is important is how long this behavior continues. But if children flap their hands every day, there could be cause for concern as it could be autism related hand movements. Be mindful though that there is a distinction between arm flapping when excited and not autism on one hand, and autism related flapping of hands.
So to reduce any kind of autism-stimming with hands including hand flapping and/or finger flicking movements, we need to assess, we need to take easy data and create a plan as to how we will increase language and learning skills and decrease the self-stim behaviors.
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Hand Flapping and Autism
I am not a believer in telling kids to stop stimming or saying hands down or hands quiet. When a 10-month-old flaps their arms when excited, it is a natural expression of their feelings. In most settings, I would rather engage a child, and give them things to do with their hands as opposed to telling them to stop unwanted behaviors.
I have a podcast episode on self stimulatory behavior you might want to check out as well as a free cheat sheet on six steps to reduce stimming. The overall key to reducing stimming is to teach the child needed language skills, self-care skills, and leisure activities. As these good skills increase, a child will be more engaged, more independent, and happier. And then they’ll spend less time stimming.
While arm flapping in infants is not a dangerous behavior, if the behavior continues it can affect learning and socialization for kids with autism. If you have a child or client who is exhibiting this behavior and you want to know how to help him or her, you can download my six-step free guide on reducing stimming at marybarbera.com/stimming.
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