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What is flapping in autism?

What is stimming?

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, words, or moving objects. These behaviors are very common in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Stimming helps regulate sensory input and deal with emotional states like anxiety, boredom, or excitement. Common stims include hand flapping, rocking, spinning, or repeating words and noises. Stimming should not be prevented unless it is harmful. It is a way autistic people self-regulate.

What is hand flapping?

Hand flapping is a common motor stim. It involves moving the hands and arms repetitively in a flapping motion. People often flap their hands near the sides of their body. Some flap one hand while others flap both. Flapping may be small subtle movements or very exaggerated and energetic. Some autistic people flap their hands when happy and excited. Others flap to calm themselves down. The motion can help block out too much sensory input. It also releases energy and tension. Hand flapping stimming provides comforting, soothing pressure on the joints.

Why is flapping common in autism?

There are several theories on why autistic people flap their hands:

Sensory differences

– Many autistic people have sensory processing issues. They are oversensitive or undersensitive to touch, sound, sight, taste, and smell. Flapping may help block out overwhelming sensory input. The deep pressure from the motion can be calming.

Communication differences

– Autistic people often struggle to communicate through speech. Flapping can be a way to release energy and expressemotion when unable to speak. Some parents notice increased flapping when their child is excited.

Repetitive behaviors

– Autism is defined by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Scientists believe repetitive movements like flapping are hardwired into the brain. The rhythm and motion are soothing.

Motor differences

– Some autistic people have poor coordination, clumsiness, and differences in muscle tone. Moving the arms repetitively may help strengthen motor skills. Flapping can also increase body awareness.

When does flapping usually start?

Parents often notice flapping behaviors between ages 12-24 months in autistic children. However, the behavior can begin at any age. Some autistic adults flap when feeling overwhelmed or excited. The intensity and frequency of flapping may increase or decrease with age. Some autistic people stim more or less depending on the situation and environment. Flapping often starts when a child is learning to communicate. Early hand flapping can be a potential red flag for autism.

Does flapping hurt?

Flapping does not typically cause physical harm. Autistic people report flapping feels soothing, regulating, and enjoyable. It releases energy and stimulates the senses. However, aggressive, forceful flapping has the potential to cause strain or tendonitis. Signs of injury include redness, swelling, or pain. Autistic people should aim to flap in a relaxed manner, even during emotional release. Therapists can recommend adaptive ways to flap safely.

When is flapping harmful?

Most flapping is harmless. But in some cases, the behavior can be harmful:

Aggressive flapping

– Flapping too hard can cause self-injury such as cuts, bruises, or joint damage. This is rare but parents should monitor for signs of injury.

Flapping that interferes with activities

– Flapping should not significantly disrupt daily tasks, learning, or safety. Kids may need reminders to stop flapping while eating or crossing the street.

Flapping that draws excessive bullying

– Some autistic kids flap in public settings where it attracts teasing. Parents can teach more subtle flapping until the child is older.

Flapping that indicates distress

– Increased flapping during meltdowns or shutdowns can show extreme distress. This warrants emotional support, not stopping the stim.

Does flapping need to be stopped?

Flapping should never be stopped unless it is clearly harmful. Suppressing stims increases anxiety and distress. Autistic people flap for good reason. Stopping the behavior may lead to meltdowns or new stims. Light flapping can be redirected in unsafe situations, but harsh tactics must be avoided. Some tips include:

– Use replacement stims like hand squeezing a stress ball
– Set aside flapping times throughout the day
– Teach subtle flapping that draws less attention
– Use oral stims like chewing gum instead
– Find the root cause and address environmental factors

Will a child grow out of flapping?

Some autistic children flap less frequently as they get older. This is often because they have learned to self-regulate through other means. However, many autistic teens and adults continue flapping, especially when overwhelmed. Autism is a lifelong condition. While flapping may change over time, it will likely never disappear entirely. Parents should not wait for their child to “grow out of it.” Accepting and accommodating flappling is crucial.

How can you support an autistic flapper?

Here are some tips for parents, teachers, and caregivers:

– View flapping as helpful and communicative, not as a problem to eliminate
– Notice when flapping increases as a signal of sensory overload or agitation
– Provide regular sensory breaks to prevent escalation to flapping
– Teach subtle flapping techniques if needed
– Defend against bullies and teach peers to accept all stims
– Stim with your child to bond and show acceptance
– Incorporate heavy work and joint compression activities through the day
– Never shame, punish, restrain, or stop spontaneous flapping
– Allow flapping in safe private spaces when needed
– Work with therapists to find adaptive ways to flap safely if needed

Are there alternatives to flapping?

Some autistic people prefer to stim in less visible ways. This protects against stigma and bullying. Alternatives to flapping provide similar sensory input. Options include:

– Rubbing hands together
– Snapping fingers
– Squeezing stress balls or fidget toys
– Drumming fingers on surfaces
– Clasping and wringing hands
– Nail biting
– Exercises like arm circles or leg bouncing
– Clenching fists or toe curls
– Chewing gum, food, or textured toys
– Rocking subtly while seated

Is hand flapping a sign of low intelligence?

Absolutely not. Autistic people of all intellectual abilities flap. Severely autistic people may flap frequently. But so do highly articulate autistic academics and professionals. Intellectual disability is separate from autism. Autistic genius like Albert Einstein likely flapped. Assumptions that flapping denotes low IQ are ableist and wrong. In fact, flapping may help autistic people concentrate amid sensory overload.

Do girls flap too?

Yes. Autistic girls and women flap commonly. Yet it often goes unnoticed. Social conditioning teaches girls to mask stims in public. So autistic girls tend to subtly flap fingers rather than full arm flapping. Small flapping motions may be dismissed as fidgeting. Girls on the spectrum are masters at masking behaviors. This leads to dramatic under-diagnosis among females. Increased flapping in girls warrants evaluation for autism.

Is flapping rude or socially unacceptable?

Flapping is neither rude nor unacceptable. However, a lack of societal understanding sometimes leads to negative perceptions. Correcting these misconceptions is key. Autistic advocates help teach that flapping is simply a way some people naturally move. It regulates their senses and emotions. With awareness, most people come to accept flapping behaviors. If flapping while speaking causes communication issues, subtler methods can be encouraged when appropriate. But flapping itself is never wrong.

Do autistic people flap in other cultures?

Yes. Autistic individuals flap across all cultures globally. It is a universally common trait. However, attitudes toward flapping differ by culture. Western nations tend to judge it more harshly. Certain Asian and African countries see it as less problematic. Cultural values impact tolerance of behaviors like flapping. But the behavior itself occurs equally across cultures. It is an international hallmark of autism.


Hand flapping is a common stimming behavior in autism. It serves many sensory and emotional purposes. Flapping releases energy, regulates the body, communicates feelings, and relieves stress. While intense flapping may need some safety guidance, the behavior itself should never be eliminated. It is an important self-regulatory tool for autistic people. Acceptance and accommodation of hand flapping – and all stims – is key. With understanding and support, autistic flappers can thrive being themselves.