I read this on Facebook on an Autism Discussion Board and thought I would share it with my readers. It is very useful information.
Hand flapping is a common self stimulatory behavior in autism.
Stimming is a way for the child to help regulate his nervous system. We
all have an optimum level of arousal for our nervous system. When the
child is under-aroused, he will stimulate to increase his arousal level.
Also, when he is over-aroused (excited, anxious, scared) he will also
stimulate to calm his nervous system. Whenever their nervous system is
excited, startled, bored, or overloaded, their nervous system seeks out
the stimming to regulate it. Stimming works well because it provides
rhythmic sensory input that they can control. You will find that the
stimming looks a little different depending on the function it is
serving (calming, organizing, alerting, etc.). In addition, many
children need to feel their body in action in order to feel connected to
it. Because their internal sensory cues do not provide good feedback
they often need to stem to feel aware of their body.
with autism tend to seek out stimulation that feels good to their
nervous system, as well as regulates it. We all engage in self
stimulation (foot rocking, nail biting, gum chewing, hair twisting,
smoking, cracking knuckles, etc.), but usually hide it under more
socially acceptable behavior.
If you notice a big increase in
stimming, the child's nervous system may be more disorganized for some
reason. A strong sensory diet of jumping, lifting, pushing, carrying,
any major gross motor activity, can help organize the nervous system.
Hand flapping is very common because it provides very strong
proprioceptive input into the wrists and joints of the fingers. The fast
flapping provides strong rhythmic, pulsating input into the wrists,
that feels good. The faster you flap the more intense the input.
Occasionally, if the child does it a lot, the stimulation almost becomes
addicting, because it is "feel good" chemistry. In addition some
children will hand flap in front of their eyes because they are
attracted to visual repetitive patterns. This is also soothing to the
For many children on the spectrum, stimming is
the one tool they have that they can control the stream of stimulation
coming in from the world around them. It allows them to control the
surge of emotions that often overwhelm them, and to maintain a sense of
connectiveness to their body. When we restrain the child from stimming,
you leave him without the one tool they have to protect their sense of
safety and security. We can help the child by recognizing what their
nervous system needs and providing it a good sensory diet that helps the
nervous system stay calm and relaxed. We can recognize and reduce the
environmental demands that tend to overwhelm the child. We can also
listen to what the stimming is telling us that the child needs at that
movement, and help provide it. But, please respect the need for stimming
and do not punish the child for doing it. It is a lifeline for many of
these children. As they get older their nervous system matures and often
self stimming decreases. They also learn to provide less obvious and
more socially acceptable forms of stimulation (like we do). However,
they will almost always need to use it occasionally throughout their
lives, when their nervous system becomes disorganized. Next time you are
anxious and disorganized, and alone, try it, you may like it!