Why does my child with Autism flap their hands?

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What are flapping and self-stimulatory behaviours (stims/stimming)?

Self-stimulatory behaviours are the repetition of body movements, sounds, or moving objects.

Stims could include (but are not limited to) hand flapping, rocking, spinning self or objects, biting, head banging, moving eyes upwards or the side, making vocalisations.

Although a common sign of Autism, hand flapping does not mean your child definitely has Autism. Many other children flap their arms when excited, particularly at a young age. However, children with Autism may not ‘grow-out’ of this stage, may flap their arms with more intensity and frequency, or may accompany flapping with another movement such as bouncing or spinning.

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Why do children with Autism flap or use other stims?

Children may engage in stimming to help with sensory processing, to either increase stimuli, or to help decrease stimuli. For example, if a child feels overwhelmed with the stimuli in their environment such as too much noise, they may stim to help calm their system.

Stims also often occur at the same time a child may feel a strong emotion such as excitement, or anxiety. For example, if a child is excited by bubbles being blown or singing their favourite song, they may stim. Similarly, if they are upset as they cannot find their favourite toy or the routine has changed, they may stim.

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Should I stop my child flapping their arms or using another self-stimulatory behaviour?

Short answer: No. Not unless the self-stimulatory behaviour is impacting learning, or harmful to your child or others e.g. biting, self harming.

Long answer: First, a lot of children with Autism will naturally reduce their own stimming behaviours as they get older. Second, a child will be using flapping or other stims for a reason. Stopping any self-stimulatory behaviour without replacing it with another one (that is possibly safer, less distracting, or more socially appropriate) could be harmful.

Many adults with Autism have been vocal about suppressing flapping being stressful and affecting their thinking process which can impact learning. However, many have also said the desire to fit in with peers made them try to suppress their stimming behaviours themselves. Talking about ways your child can respond about their stims to other children at school, or other more ‘socially appropriate’ ways to get their sensory needs met can be positive for older children.

It is important to identify what sensory need your child is wanting when they start stimming. It is also important to distinguish between a stim, and a communication attempt e.g. biting when the iPad is taken away may not be a stim, but might be your child letting you know they are unhappy.

Remember: we all stim on occasion. Some people play with their hair, others tap their foot or doodle in a meeting.

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What next?

The above information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified professional.

Our team at Acorn Autism can support your child with sensory processing and regulation, enabling them to adjust and control their energy level, emotions, behaviours, and attention.

If you feel as though your child’s stims are harmful or inappropriate, our team is able to work with you and your child to identify the reason for the stim, and work towards reducing or replacing the behaviour to ensure your child still gets the stimulation they require.

Please contact Acorn Autism for more information.