Hand Flapping, Aspergers, and the Autism Spectrum

Stimming Defined and Discussed


A 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 about 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.

Many autistics, however, will read the above example and protest. Hand flapping, to them, is a natural part of who they are. In Behavior Is Communication: Are You Listening?, Cynthia Kim points out that stimming can communicate many things. It can communicate anxiety, excitement, or happiness.

And in her article, A Cognitive Defense of Stimming, Cynthia writes:

Yes, autistic children should be taught the same social rules as typical children. They should be taught to respect others and all of the rules of politeness and civility that go along with it. But here’s the thing: I was an autistic kid and I can tell you for certain, stimming or not, the other kids already think we’re weird.

Instead of insisting that autistic children adopt unnatural behaviors for the sake of social acceptance, how about working toward changing what is socially acceptable?

Quite the food for thought.

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 people on the autism spectrum flap their hands?

First, not everyone on the autism 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 pencil?
  • 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 people 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 uncomfortable, 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 Asperger Experts helps us better understand hand flapping:

Beyond Hand Flapping: Six Sensory Strategies to Help Your Calm Yourself, by Brian R. King, LCSW.

Stimtastic: Cynthia Kim’s website dedicated to stimming jewelry and toys designed by autistics for autistics, and where stimming is celebrated, not suppressed.

To Stim or Not To Stim


Here are the articles I discuss in the podcast episode:

Gavin Bollard writes the article, “What Is Stimming, and What Does It Feel Like?”

SR Salas composed a wonderful tribute to stimming: Stim. Stim. Stim. Stim. Stim. Stim. Stim. Stim.

Links, Links, and More Links

What Is Stimming?

Real Social Skills – Stimming Is Not Just a Coping Mechanism, and How To Stim Discretely In Class

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photo credit: HumongoNationphotogallery
photo credit for the second photo: unclealp / 123RF Stock Photo
What are some of your thoughts about hand flapping and stimming in general. I’d love to hear both Aspie and NT points of view!
  • How to Stim Discreetly

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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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