Hand Flapping, Aspergers, and the Autism Spectrum

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]”

"Subscribe to the blog"
Receive an update straight to your inbox every time I publish a new article. Your email address will never be shared

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 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, 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.

photo credit: HumongoNationphotogallery
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
Print Friendly
"Subscribe to the blog"
Receive an update straight to your inbox every time I publish a new article. Your email address will never be shared
  • Twitter
  • Website

 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.

Are you tired of feeling alone, like you're the only one in this world? Please join the Thrive with Aspergers Community to connect with others just like you!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • usethebrainsgodgiveyou

    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.

  • Rhonda Greenhaw

    I work with adults with autism; it would have been nice if you would have gotten the perspective of one person on the spectrum for this article.
    In our field, we tend to view differences as “disorder.” I think we need to change this, as well as creating understanding within our neurotypical world – there is an array of human experiences, and no one gets to hold the “normal” stick.

  • http://www.stephenborgman.com Stephen Borgman

    I’m in agreement with you, Rhonda, that we need to see the autism spectrum as a different way of thinking, not a disorder. The video I posted, together with the thread from Wrong Planet include the perspective of several people on the autism spectrum. Thank you for your input.

  • http://www.personal-success-factors.com/ SteveBorgman

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

  • BJLeech

    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.

  • http://www.stephenborgman.com Stephen Borgman

    BJ, those are some interesting observations. It really could be that you have some Aspie traits. You might want to consider taking on online autism quotient quiz if you have some questions about that possibility. It also sounds like you’re quite a creative person as well.

  • amy78

    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/

  • http://autisticook.wordpress.com autisticook

    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?

  • http://www.stephenborgman.com Stephen Borgman

    Hi, autisticcook: Absolutely, that would be fantastic! Feel free to do so

  • http://www.myaspergers.net/ SteveBorgman

    autisticook That’s a great idea!  Feel free to post your link to the survey here!

  • http://www.myaspergers.net/ SteveBorgman

    amy78 Amy, thank you for sharing your son’s experience, and the Cluas resource.

  • http://www.myaspergers.net/ SteveBorgman

    BJLeech I wonder how it was that you “grew out” of the way that you expressed your stims at 15, to the way you do now?

  • http://autisticook.wordpress.com autisticook

    Thanks! The link is http://autisticook.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/twirling-my-brains-out/. Feel free to share with others who you think would like to contribute!

  • Pingback: Laugh in the Face of Dificulties with Aspergers Humor()

  • http://diaryofanalien1.blogspot.com Angel The Alien

    I have Aspergers and when I was a kid I used to flap my arms, and my mom was always yelling at me and saying people would think there was something wrong with me. I don’t like to tell any kid not to stim< because I know if they have to concentrate on not stimming, they won't be able to think about anything else. But I've talked to a lot of parents who think that they need to teach their children not to stim, because they want to protect their children from being stared at and stuff.

  • http://www.myaspergers.net/ steveborgman

    Angel, I’m sorry you had to go through that experience growing up. Stimming is something to be celebrated, and other people need to be educated. I do understand the quandry some parents find themselves in, and I think the topic needs a lot more positive thinking and reflection.

  • Marius Beytell

    Hi, Stephen; Thank you for your very insightful blog. I have two sons, one with Aspergers and the younger showing some signs too, maybe because they are so close, there’s some mimicry, but on the topic of stimming; I love watching my son when it happens, He does not always show emotion, but this is one of those times when the floodgates open and we see how he experiences life! To me, it is an endearing thing to watch and I will defend and explain it to anyone who dares comment.

  • http://www.myaspergers.net/ steveborgman

    Marius, your son is fortunate to have a mother who understands and affirms him and his differences! Way to go :) Learning acceptance is something we parents and professionals need to constantly practice.