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If you were to create a list of the top five or ten characteristics associated with autism, hand flapping would likely win a spot near the top of the list as a common visible characteristic of autism. Children with autism who display this behavior are easy to spot in schools and in public because this behavior is frequent and sometimes continuous. While not inherently problematic, this frequent public display can become problematic when it hinders daily functioning and social interactions.
Hand flapping is a repetitive hand movement that occurs in an up and down or side to side movement. It can include finger wiggling, clapping, moving arms, shaking, clenching fists, or any other variation of these characteristics. Often, it is part of a full physical display that might include body rocking or head shaking or even pacing or jumping while making vocalizations.
Is it a sign of autism? It can be, but hand flapping isn’t always associated primarily with autism. Hand flapping can accompany other neurological or developmental disorders in addition to autism. Children who are diagnosed with ADHD, Down Syndrome, OCD, and other neurological disorders can also have a tendency for hand flapping. Typically developing children- and even some adults- occasionally exhibit hand flapping as a display of excitement, nervousness, or just habit without giving it a second thought. Hand flapping only becomes concerning when it interferes with the ability to function and communicate.
What Causes Hand Flapping
Hand flapping is categorized as an automatic response to specific triggers in a person’s environment. It is a physical response without deliberate thought- that is why it is called an automatic response.
For those of us who live with or work with a child who has autism, we know that hand flapping is also a self stimulatory behavior- otherwise known as “stimming”. A child with autism uses stimming behaviors to self-regulate their emotions or anxiety. Since children with autism have difficulty identifying their feelings or expressing them verbally, stimming provides a way to process those feelings.
Typical children and adults do it, too! Nail biting, fidgeting, pacing, or twirling your hair while you talk on the phone are all automatic responses similar to hand flapping. They accomplish the same thing- self regulation and processing.
What triggers hand flapping will vary from person to person with autism. Any of the following can be considered triggers:
- Excitement- a child sees a butterfly and begins to smile, squeal, and flap hands.
- Fear- a big spider strolls by and the child begins to flap hands and cry.
- Accomplishment- a child finishes a drawing, raises hands and moves fingers vigorously while looking over the drawing with a smile.
- Thinking- a child stares off into the distance, rocking back and forth with hands up while flicking wrists and occasionally clapping.
- Emotional distress- following an upsetting event, a child may vocalize loudly, pace, wring their hands, clap, and flap hands up and down.
How Do You Stop Hand Flapping in Autism
Stopping an automatic response is a challenging task for any parent or caregiver. There are a few approaches that are proven to help.
1. Figure out the function of the behavior and change the environment.
For example, if a child with autism has an aversion to a certain type of food and the hand flapping only happens in the presence of that particular food- simply remove that food item and avoid serving it to the child in the future. This is a great first attempt, but it isn’t always that simple.
2. Teach the child with autism a replacement skill.
This should be something that is more appropriate than the stimming behavior. For example, a non verbal child learns how to use a break card to request a break rather than crying and flapping his/her hands to avoid a task.
3. Deliver praise and positive reinforcement.
If a child with autism is behaving appropriately, take a moment and praise him/her with heavy doses of praise! Hug, squeeze, or deliver positive statements such as, “I LOVE the way you are sitting so calmly” or “Wow! Look at how nice and grown up you are sitting… and you are so quiet. Great job!”
4. Practice sitting calmly in situations that would normally trigger hand flapping.
Slowly increase the amount of time that the child is expected to sit still and give them positive reinforcement for every extra second.
5. Find help.
All these techniques are part of the regular therapy that is recommended for children with autism. Circle Care Services is a great autism support provider – the perfect place to start if you live in the New Jersey area. Involving a professional in the care of your child who will guide you and keep you on track will help you achieve long lasting progress.
Our qualified staff can help you find solutions to your child’s stimming behaviors. If you feel these behaviors are starting to affect your child’s ability to communicate or perform tasks, contact Circle Care today. We offer free consultations, and we’d love to hear from you.