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Why Do Autistic Children Flap Their Hands?

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Kids who have autism often engage in self-stimulatory behaviour, which is also called stimming. Stimming includes specific behaviours such as hand flapping, spinning, rocking, holding and shaking a toy repeatedly or repetition of words and phrases. Whenever a child engages in stimming, often parents don’t know about why they are doing so and are concerned about why their child is acting like this.

Hand flapping is when someone moves their arms and hands in a way similar to a bird flapping its wings or just raising both their hands and rapidly shaking them. Similarly, spinning and rocking too is accompanied by hand flapping; children engage in stimming when they are excited. For instance, when a child is excited about something, they would flap their hands and rock back and forth. 

Here, it is vital to notice that stimming is mostly, but is not always, a symptom of autism. It is usually the most obvious symptoms, after all, very few people, typically developing people, rock, flap, pace, or flick their fingers regularly. While autistic stimming looks odd, however, 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 you have engaged in stimming; it is a natural response whenever we are nervous, excited, or worried.  The most significant differences between autistic and typical stimming are the type, quantity, and obviousness of the behaviour.

There are many types of stimming. Verbal stimming includes 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 repeatedly blinks. Tactile stimming is the constant rubbing of hands or itching. Vestibular stimming include rocking, spinning, jumping up and down. 

Reason behind stimming

People who have autism stim because they find it comforting. Whenever an autistic child or individual is excited, happy, anxious, overwhelmed, they stim, to comfort themselves or only because it feels nice. Under stressful situations, autistic individuals experience stimming with greater severity and for extended periods of time. While ordinary people can stop stimming behaviour immediately, people with autism often find it hard to stop stimming, and they do it during most of their waking time.

Ordinary people will stop stimming when they realise that it looks odd or they shouldn’t be doing this. Autistic individuals, however, may not be aware of other peoples’ response to their stims. There are a lot of examples of circumstances in which some people with autism are unable to control their stims, or find it very stressful and challenging to do so.

People with autism engage in stimming to help themselves to manage anxiety, fear, anger, excitement, anticipation, and other strong emotions. They also stim to help themselves handle overwhelming sensory input that they are unable to process. There are also examples when it becomes a habit, and people stim out of habit, just like some people twirl their hair, bite their nails or tap their feet out of habit.

Sometimes, stimming proves to be useful for these children, making it easier for the autistic individual to cope with challenging situations. But most of the time, under normal circumstances, stimming is a distraction, creates socially awkward situations, or causes physical harm to the child or others and generally make life harder for the special people.  

How to deal with stimming?

Just like autism, stimming too won’t completely go away. However, it can be minimised, and its severity can be lowered. There are many forms of stimming, come may create a lot of problems while some types are not very disruptive and allow the child to stim quietly without any disrupting. One way of effectively dealing with stimming is to convert a more problematic stim to a more subtle, discreet stim. Some stims like hand flapping or constantly making screeching sounds looks very odd to other kids and can cause a lot of problem for you. This stimming can be converted to visual stimming where the child can calm themselves by doing something that is less harmful to themselves and less disruptive to others. 

Stimming does not always create a big problem and proves to be a source of relaxation for the child. In general, unless the behaviour is dangerous, there is no reason to forbid it; but there are several reasons to manage it. 

You should know when to do something about stimming and when not. If stimming individuals with autism self-stimulate constantly, their stimming may be a hindrance between them and their ability to interact with other people, participate in classroom activities, community events, or the workplace. If the stimming causes distraction to other people, like making sounds or behaviour that will distract other kids in the classroom or if the stimming 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 individuals to eliminate or alter some of their stimming. Stimming can be decreased with medications that address the underlying issues of anxiety. The environment matters a lot; a calm and familiar environment means less excitement and hence lesser stimming. Some children and elders with autism can learn through coaching and practice to either change their stims, such as squeeze a ball or fidget with a 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 special considerations needed to be made to deal with it. Stimming is a symptom of autism, and it can’t go away. What can be done is to make things better for the special children and people is to spread awareness about autism, so more and more people are tolerant towards autistic and people and treat them the right way.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He interviews people within psychology, mental health, and well-being on his YouTube channel, The DRH Show

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