Hand Flapping, Aspergers, and the Autism Spectrum

autism aspergers hand flappingA mom described taking her son to the see the Avengers.

She glanced over halfway through and was amazed not to see him flapping his hands, kicking his feet, or arching his back.

She described her emotions.

My son does that [hand flapping] because he has autism/aspergers. At first during the movie I never noted it. I don’t know why. Then I looked over at him and realized it. Waterworks come on like nobody’s business. I am crying in the middle of a movie that is not remotely close to being a tear jerker. At that point I am frantically trying to catch every tear that is going down past the 3D glasses I am wearing with my napkin I was using while I munched on buttery popcorn.

I could not tell at first in the confusing emotions I was feeling if I was really happy or sad too. I think it was a combination of the two. Relief, gladness, sadness and wondering.

You may wonder, “Why was she so happy?  What was the big deal?”

Because she’s a parent, and a mother. And we parents love our kids. And we want them to go through life experiencing only great things. Unfortunately, per her quote regarding a survey by the Interactive Autism Network, almost 2/3 of children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied at some point. And the survey found that these kids are three times as likely as typical kids to have been bullied in he past month.

Hand flapping is merely a subset of stimming.

According to Wikipedia,  ”Stimming is a repetitive body movement, such as hand flapping, that is hypothesized to stimulate one or more senses. The term is shorthand for self-stimulation. Repetitive movement, or stereotypical movement, is often referred to as stimming under the hypothesis that it has a function related to sensory input.[1]”

According to the DSM-IV, one of the characteristics of Aspergers and autism is

(II) Restricted repetitive & stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:

(A) encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
(B) apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
(C) stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g. hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements) (bold my emphasis)
(D) persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

Why do individuals on the autism spectrum flap their hands?

First, not everyone on the autismm spectrum flaps their hands.

Some may walk on their tip toes, others may have other repetitive behaviors that they practice, such as twisting string, or complex body movements.

One hypothesis is that the stimming behavior helps the person cope with overwhelming sensory input and emotion, whether positive or negative. So a person may stim when excited or under the stress/anxiety of having to cope with, for example, confusing social situations.

NT’s “Flap Their Hands”, Too!

Well, it’s not exactly the same type of behavior.

But think about this:

  • Do you ever chew your nails?
  • Do you every click a pen repeatedly?
  • Do you ever shake your leg when you have extra energy or excitement, or anxiety?
  • Have you ever tapped your penci?
  • Have you ever paced back and forth before a test or exam?
  • Or have you ever twirled you hair?

Then you fall into the same category!

Here’s where many individuals with autism take issue with NT’s, feeling that NT’s are overly judgmental of their behavior.

From the general public’s standpoint,  it’s the choice of stim and the quantity of stim that can get in the way of social perception and relating.

We know from social thinking that how we behave affects how other people think about us.

For good or for bad, behaviors that are unexpected will make people uncomfortable, often to the point of avoiding us or even making fun of us.

I’m not going to tell you whether to stim or not, but you may want to consider stimming within the greater context of whether you want to form friendships with NT’s. Yes, the NT’s will have to be flexible enough to understand and accept you. But you’ll also need to be flexible enough to understand that ‘not typical’ behavior will make NT’s uncomoforable, too.

Some Interesting Internet Reading About Hand Flapping, Aspergers, and the Autism Spectrum

Here’s a thread from Wrong Planet on the topic.

This Hand Flapping Video from Wired Magazine has been a big hit on YouTube.  It’s explained from an Aspie’s point of view:

Beyond Hand Flapping: Six Sensory Strategies to Help Your Calm Yourself — This is a great article from one of my favorite Aspie authors, Brian King.

photo credit: HumongoNationphotogallery
What are some of your thoughts regarding hand flapping and stimming in general.  I’d love to hear both Aspie and NT points of view!
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About Stephen Borgman

 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.
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autisticook like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'm putting together a resource that can hopefully help parents and others understand more about the wide range of stimming behaviour. Well, when I say putting together... it's more of a crowdsourced thing, I'm asking everyone, autistic and non-autistic people alike, to submit their own stims! Would it be OK if I post a link to the survey here?


Nice read! Your story somewhat relates to my story. My child is also having Aspergers and sometimes he also does hand flapping. People having this disease have to face so many social challenges in their life. My son has to face troubles with many social situations. He is not able to pick up on social cue and finds difficulties in catching body language of others. In school no one wants to include him in normal conversations. Sometimes it really shocks me that why people behave so badly with children having Aspergers.

Recently I consulted to Cluas specialist and they provide efficient help and treatments to improve his health and learning skills. Now he feels better and much confident. If anyone in your family is suffering from this disease then I recommend you to consult Claus specialists. 

Reference:-  http://cluas.ie/children/aspergers-syndrome/

BJLeech like.author.displayName 1 Like

I don't know that I have Asperger's, but when I was a kid... and probably up until the age of 15... I would flap my hands and kick my feet, sometimes for up to an hour at a time and so intensely that I could actually work up a sweat. While I was doing it, I would create 'movies' in my mind, complete with characters, storylines, etc. I don't do it any more... but I do notice that when I daydream now, I still feel a need to move in order to produce some sort of intense action in the daydream. Usually it's clenching my jaw or shutting my eyes. Something I've always found strange about myself, I guess.

usethebrainsgodgiveyou like.author.displayName 1 Like

My son never had a lot of stims. He does, however, still walk on his toes.  Because of that, and his dysgraphia--I think it is a nerve conduction problem, like the wiring shorted a bit.


That aside, once we were driving along, and right in front of me I saw a dog run under the wheel of a car.  A pedestrian on the sidewalk started hand-flapping, something I felt like doing as I saw the dog crushed..  An intensity of emotion, unexpected, led this supposedly normal person to hand flap. It's like an emotional zap, beyond one's control.  Unless of course you are punished so severely you deaden the impulse.

SteveBorgman moderator

 @usethebrainsgodgiveyou Wow, what a powerful analogy! It speaks to how strongly tuned many Aspie senses are. Thank you so much for sharing the example


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