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Hand Flapping in Children with Autism

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As a parent, you probably saw your baby flapping their hands rapidly for the first time when they got excited, scared, or anxious. 

Hand flapping is one of many types of stimming. It is defined as what a child does to help regulate their sensory system, whether it’s due to over or under-stimulation.

At Heartlinks, we get many inquiries as to whether hand flapping is a clear indication of autism and if it should be controlled.

The answer is it depends. Hand flapping is a perfectly natural human response. 

Yes, the majority of the autistic children we treat do use this type of stimming, but that doesn’t mean that all kids who are hand flapping past a certain age are autistic. 

Read on to learn more about hand flapping and how it affects your child.

What is Hand Flapping in Children with Autism?

If you’ve ever witnessed your child flapping their hands, it looks like they are waving rapidly. Their wrists flick back and forth while their arm is outstretched yet bent at the elbow. 

Usually, one of the first times you’ll witness your child’s hand flapping is when they’re nervous, excited, upset, or stressed. 

Does Hand Flapping Indicate Autism?

It’s important to remember that hand flapping and other types of self-stimulatory behavior do not automatically indicate your child has autism. All children will exhibit some sort of stimming in their young lives.

Child stimming

What’s important to note is that your child’s hand flapping should disappear by their second or third birthday. Your toddler’s hand flapping on its own shouldn’t be worrisome. However, when coupled with other behaviors including the following, it can be cause for concern:

  1. Avoids eye contact with others
  2. Has difficulty understanding and respecting the personal boundaries of others
  3. Doesn’t share common interests with others
  4. Does not understand boundaries concerning personal space
  5. Does not respond when their name is called
  6. Has flat or very limited facial expressions

What is Stimming?

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often flap their hands as a self-stimulatory activity called stimming. The word stimming is a shortened version of describing “self-stimulation.”

Stimming behaviors typically involve repetitive sounds or movements. Apart from hand flapping, other types of stimming might include rocking, humming, grunting, tapping their ears, or spinning.  

Why Do Autistic Children Stim?

There is no single answer as to why children with autism hand flap or partake in any other type of stemming. 

What researchers have been able to determine is that it’s a coping mechanism designed to do one or some of the following:

  • Help to avoid certain expectations or activities (i.e., maybe your child doesn’t want to brush his teeth)
  • Reduce anxiety or calm themselves
  • Diminish emotional distress
  • Express frustrations, in particular, if they’re unable to communicate effectively.
  • To garner attention from peers, parents, or a caregiver

There have been cases where hand flapping and other stimming have been used to ease or eliminate physical pain. If you suspect this might be the case with your child, please immediately seek medical attention. 

How Does Stimming Differ for People With Autism?

The majority of people engage in some sort of stimming. 

Boy stimming at home covering his ears

For example, you might tap your foot, bite your nails, or twirl your hair around your fingers. These behaviors are usually used as coping mechanisms in response to boredom, anxiety, or fear.

Often we don’t even notice that we are stimming because, traditionally, it’s a harmless behavior. 

Say you’ve been clicking a pen open and closed for ten minutes, and people in the room are glaring at you to stop. That is a form of stimming, but you’ve picked up on the social cues of others and have stopped clicking.

Stimming in individuals with autism is usually a lot more pronounced. 

Faced with feeling overstimulated, they may engage in full-body rocking back and forth or hand flapping. Sometimes the stimming can go on for extended periods, and despite glaring eyes from onlookers, the person doesn’t stop.  

Should I Stop My Child From Hand-Flapping?

Though stimming can help regulate a child’s sensory system, there are times when it can become harmful to your child’s well-being.

If your child is banging their hands into a wall or onto an object and actively hurting themselves, it may be time to change how they stim.  

At Heartlinks, we recognize the importance of stimming for children with autism to regulate their sensory systems. 

However, sometimes hand flapping can become problematic if the child is harming themselves or others. It can also be incredibly distracting and socially awkward if they do it in class while their peers try to work in a school environment.

Using ABA therapy, our trained therapists can help autistic children curb their hand flapping or use another form of stimming should it become detrimental to themselves or others.

How Heartlinks Can Help

At Heartlinks, we recognize the importance of hand flapping to the overall well-being of a child with autism. 

However, when this stimming becomes detrimental to them or others because it’s physically harming, socially ostracizing, and distracting, our therapists look for replacement behaviors. 

We work with the child to identify actions they can take to meet their sensory needs while being less harmful to themselves and others around them.
For more information on how Heartlinks can help your autistic child, contact us today.

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