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Autism and Hand Flapping

written by: Debbie Roome • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 2/15/2011

Hand flapping is a form of stimming that is commonly seen in autistic people. Read on to learn what it looks like, why people do it and how to treat it.

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    What is Hand Flapping

    Autism hand flapping is a self-stimulatory activity that autistic people often engage in. The person flaps their hands repeatedly and rapidly, and may also open and close them. Some flap their hands loosely from the wrist, while other forms of flapping may involve the arms. Autism and hand flapping may be accompanied by other stimming behaviors such as spinning and rocking.

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    Why Do People with Autism Flap Their Hands

    It is believed that autism hand flapping is an attempt to soothe sensory overload. A parent can tell when an autistic child is stressed as they will start stimming, and if the source of the problem is not dealt with, they may have an emotional meltdown.

    Many autistic people are extremely sensitive to sensations and sounds that would not have any effect on most people. Multiple sounds, loud noises and crowds can cause pain and extreme distress and hand flapping is a way to escape the sensory input. It seems to be a way of withdrawing into a private world that only the autistic person inhabits.

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    Treatments for Hand Flapping

    In the short term, autism hand flapping can be treated by removing the person from the source of distress. This is not always possible, however, and it is better to seek a long term solution.

    It is important for the parent or caregiver to discourage hand flapping and the offer of a treat or a favorite toy can work to motivate change. Parents can make the person aware of their behavior in the following ways:

    • Use verbal reminders to stop the hand flapping
    • Use a card with a stop sign on when the person starts hand flapping
    • Gradually increase the amount of time that a child or adult must refrain from hand flapping before they get a treat

    In some cases, it is possible to encourage a substitute stimming behavior that is not so publicly off-putting or obvious. These include rubbing or massaging the back of the neck, and moving fingers around.

    If an autistic person is going to be exposed to circumstances that provoke hand flapping, it is best to be prepared. For example, ear plugs can be useful in a crowd as they cut down on noise levels. Sun glasses can cut out visual stimulation and a family group around a person can minimize physical contact and jostling.

    Autism and hand flapping are commonly seen together and can be a source of frustration and embarrassment. Dealing with the stimming is often most successful when a combined approach of treatment and prevention is implemented. This will take focused effort and commitment from the people who live with the autistic person.

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    Resources

    http://www.asatonline.org/suggreading/articles/stereotypy.htm

    http://www.teaam.org/autism-info/faq.php#15

    Children with Autism – A Parents’ Guide, Michael D Powers, Woodbine House, 2000