Why autistic children flap their hands

Convert disruptive stimming to less obvious behaviour. (Rawpixel pic)

Kids with autism often engage in self-stimulatory behaviour, which is called stimming.

Stimming includes specific behaviour such as hand flapping, spinning, rocking, holding and shaking a toy repeatedly or the repetition of words and phrases.

Parents often don’t know the reason their children are doing so and are concerned why their child is acting thus.

Hand flapping is moving their arms and hands similar to a bird flapping its wings or raising their hands and rapidly shaking them.

Spinning and rocking back and forth are accompanied by hand flapping; as children engage in stimming when they are excited.

Stimming is mostly, but not always, a symptom of autism. It is usually the most obvious symptom.

While autistic stimming looks odd, it should be noted that subtler forms of stimming are also found among many people and are a part of their behaviour.

If you have ever tapped your pencil, twirled your hair, bitten your nails or tapped your toes or any other repetitive action then you have engaged in stimming.

Stimming is a natural response to excitement and nervousness

It is a natural response whenever you are nervous, excited, or worried. The most significant differences between autistic and typical stimming are the type, quantity, and obviousness of the behaviour.

Verbal stimming includes the repetition of words and phrases, humming, grunting or making high pitched sounds.

Visual stimming is when the child flaps their hands, turns the lights on and off repeatedly or continuously blinks.

Tactile stimming is itching and the constant rubbing of hands. Vestibular stimming includes rocking, spinning and jumping up and down.

People with autism stim because they find it comforting. When excited, happy, anxious or overwhelmed, they stim to comfort themselves or only because it feels good.

Under stressful situations, autistic individuals experience stimming with greater severity and for extended periods of time.

Ordinary people will stop stimming when they realise that it looks odd. Autistic individuals may not be aware of other peoples’ response to their stims.

People with autism are unable to control their stims, or find it very stressful and challenging to do so.

This is because they engage in stimming to manage anxiety, fear, anger, excitement, anticipation, and other strong emotions.

Stimming helps autistic children cope with anxiety. (Rawpixel pic)

They also stim to help themselves handle overwhelming sensory input that they are unable to process.

There are some people who stim out of habit, like twirling their hair, biting their nails or tapping their feet.

Sometimes, stimming proves to be useful, making it easier for autistic individual to cope with challenging situations.

But under normal circumstances, stimming is a distraction, creates socially awkward situations, or causes physical harm to the child and generally makes life harder for everyone.

Stimming won’t completely go away, but it can be minimised and its severity can be lowered.

One way is to convert a problematic stim to a more subtle, discreet stim. Stims like hand flapping or screeching sounds and looks very odd to other kids and can cause a lot of problems.

This can be converted to visual stimming where the child does something that is less harmful and disruptive to others.

In general, unless the behaviour is dangerous, there is no reason to forbid it; but there are many reasons to manage it.

There are many reasons to manage stimming behaviour

Their stimming may be a hindrance to their ability to interact with other people, participate in classroom activities, community events, or in the workplace.

If the stimming causes distraction in the classroom or if it draws negative attention and makes the child vulnerable to bullying, then parents need to intervene and help their child manage their stims.

Lessening or switching stims can be a tricky task. As it is a way of getting calm for the child, merely scolding or punishing them will make things far worse.

ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), a behavioural therapy, may help them to eliminate or alter some of their stimming.

Stimming can be decreased with medication that addresses the underlying issues of anxiety.

The environment matters a lot; a calm and familiar environment means less excitement and hence lesser stimming.

Some children with autism can learn through coaching and practice to either change their stims, squeeze a stress ball or fidget with a rubber toy rather than hand flapping, or engage in excessive stimming only in the privacy of their homes.

Autism is a special condition, and there are considerations to deal with it. Stimming is a symptom of autism, and it won’t go away.

What can be done to make things better for special children is to spread awareness about autism, so that people are more tolerant and treat them the right way.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg and host of The DRH Show. You can connect with him on Twitter @drelojo_howell