Hand Flapping in Kids with Autism

Hand flapping is a common self stimulatory behavior for kids with autism. Today, I’m talking all about hand flapping and giving you insight on what to do about it. Have you ever been in a lecture where the material is way too easy or completely over your head? Or have you been bored waiting in line at the grocery store? If you get into these situations, I bet you might doodle or play with your hair. Or if you’re in line at the grocery store, you’re probably scrolling through Facebook feed to keep you entertained.

These behaviors are the equivalent of a child with autism or a toddler with signs of autism engaging in self stimulatory behavior – otherwise known as stimming. You see, we all stim. In fact, our solitary leisure activities such as shooting a basketball into a hoop for a few minutes, playing a violin and getting the notes to sound just right or watching reality TV are actually all stimming.

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

Some people, especially high functioning adult autistics who are completely conversational, do not believe that we should consider stimming to be a problem behavior. Or that we should try to reduce it.  But children with autism may have problem behaviors when asked to do self-care skills or homework rather than stim. It just makes sense to teach a child needed language and learning skills and to reduce their stim behavior as much as possible.

So to reduce any kind of stimming, including hand flapping, we need to assess, we need to take some data and we need to plan what kind of learning activities we’re going to do to reduce the self stim behavior. 

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Hand Flapping and Autism

I am actually not a believer in telling kids to stop stimming or saying hands down or hands quiet. In most settings, I would rather engage a child. 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 hand flapping is not a dangerous behavior, it can affect learning and socialization for kids with autism. If you have a child or client who’s 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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Transcript

Hand flapping is a common self stimulatory behavior for kids with autism. Today, I’m talking all about hand flapping and giving you insight on what to do about it. Hi, I’m Dr. Mary Barbera, autism mom, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and bestselling author. Each week I provide you with some of my ideas about turning autism around so I’m glad that you are here. Have you ever been in a lecture where the material is way too easy or completely over your head? Or have you been bored waiting in line at the grocery store? If you get into these situations, if you’re in a lecture, I bet you might doodle or play with your hair, or if you’re in line at the grocery store, you’re probably scrolling through Facebook feed to keep you entertained.

These behaviors are the equivalent of a child with autism or a toddler with signs of autism, engaging in self stimulatory behavior, otherwise known as stimming. You see, we all stim. In fact, our solitary leisure activities, such as shooting a basketball into a hoop for a few minutes, playing a violin and getting the, the notes to sound just right or watching reality TV are actually all stimming.

These self stimulatory behaviors keep our neurons firing when we are not engaged in, with others or 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.

And 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 the hand flapping can be 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. Hand flapping can be a sign of autism and is a repetitive movement that’s quite common. I did do a video blog on how to tell if it’s ADHD versus autism. Um, you may want to check that out. I also have another video blog, which is reaching a half a million hits, uh, views at this time and that’s “Is it a speech delay or autism?”  If your child is stimming, no matter what their age are and hand flapping for long periods of time, it’s almost always impeding his or her learning and socialization. Some kids like my son, Lucas, when he was young was actually, um, his stimming was, was watching TV or now 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, um, while hand flapping, which is not only impact 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, like I said, in front of their faces to stim. One client I worked with liked to wave straws in front of his face and another client gravitated towards flapping pencils, or even like the spatula in preschool settings, um, the spatula in the toy kitchen, she would flap that spatula in front of her face, um, even when she wasn’t playing with the kitchen.  We actually had to hide it, um, because it was such a problem. She would run into preschool and she would run to grab the spatula to begin flapping.  Some people, especially high functioning adult autistics who are completely conversational, do not believe that we should be considered, we should consider stimming to be a problem behavior or that we should try to reduce it.  But in children with autism who are not learning language and social skills and leisure abilities, and they’re having problem behaviors when asked to do self care skills or homework, um, rather than stim, I think we have an ethical responsibility and it just makes sense to teach a child needed language and learning skills and to reduce their stim behavior as much as possible.

So to reduce any kind of stimming, including hand flapping, we need to assess, we need to take some data and we need to plan what kind of learning activities we’re going to do to reduce the self stim behavior. I am actually not a believer in telling kids to stop stimming or hands down or hands quiet. Um, in most typically, you know, in most settings I would rather engage a child, give them things to do with their hands, as opposed to telling them to stop un, unwanted behaviors. I did do a podcast about self stimulatory behavior you might want to check out. And I also have a, um, free cheat sheet, which tells you six steps, six steps to reduce stimming, which I’m going to give you the link in in a minute.

The overall key to reducing stimming is to teach the child needed language, learning self care, and leisure activities. As these goods skills increase, a child will be more engaged, more independent and happier. And then, uh, they’ll spend less time stimming. While hand flapping is not a dangerous behavior, it can affect learning and socialization for kids with autism. If you have a child or client, who’s 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. And download that today. If you liked this video, I would love it if  you would give me a thumbs up, leave a comment, share it with someone else who might benefit and I will see you right here next week.

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