Hand Flapping In Children – What Does It Look Like & What Causes It?

Hand flapping is one of the most common self-stimulatory behaviors, mostly used to self-soothe, resembling a bird’s wings in flight, and is common when kids are excited, nervous, upset, in heightened emotion, and sadly – with autism. A red flag key is how often and how long your baby hand flaps. If he outgrows it around 3 years of age, there’s nothing to worry about – otherwise, it may cause concerns.

This behavior is a type of sensation-seeking that can relieve feelings of anxiety, frustration, and boredom. Although most of us stim from time to time without even realizing it (for a subtle form of stimming), hand flapping is prevalent among young children.

Although a popular sign of autism, hand flapping does not always mean autism. On a positive note, it’s great to know that the early signs of autism are now widely known, hence help in early detection and intervention.

If stimming like hand flapping is making you worried, read on, the following may help you.

Stereotypy or self-stimulatory behavior

Self-stimulating behavior refers to repetitive body movements used solely to stimulate one’s senses, common in many individuals with developmental disabilities. However, it appears to be most common in children and adults with autism.

Research, however, suggested that commonalities exist among repetitive behaviors and represent the 2 things:

  1. Interaction of the stage of neuromotor development with environmental influences – such as restrictive car seats and cribs.
  2. A homeostatic mechanism that serves to regulate stimulation from the environment.

To self-soothe is very common to us all and guess what – our body needs it, just that in some cases, others need it more than we do.

Among these common self-soothing behaviors are rocking, jiggling, cracking knuckles, twirling hair around fingers, nail-biting, thumb-sucking, pacing, and, yes, hand flapping.

What does hand flapping look like?

Think of a baby bird’s introductory fly, and it’s an exact picture of hand flapping – your child is rapidly waving his hands at the wrist while holding his arms bent at the elbow.

To give you a better look, you can watch the video below:

Hand flapping is a hand and finger mannerism or a repetitive/unusual movement of your baby’s hand and arms. Studies explained that this movement is most likely to occur when your kid’s arms are outstretched, and his wrists are flexed.

There are different types of how children usually hand flaps, such as:

  • Wrist movement
  • Fingers movement
  • Tapping a surface using his palm and clapping loudly
  • Knocking any surface using his knuckles

In the case of autism, hand flapping may appear slightly disturbing when the child tightens his body and throws stuff here and there.

Common causes of hand flapping

You must know that hand flapping shows up in different situations and for different reasons. Let’s talk about a few of these situations.

  1. When your kid is overwhelmed with excitement – He needs a way to let it out and hand flapping is a good option. In fact, a study on repetitive hand and arm movements found that 70% were triggered by excitement.
  2. When your child is nervous, anxious, or uncomfortable – He needs a way to release tension and feel better hence self-soothing comes in.
  3. When your kiddo made it a habit – This time, contrary to the excitement and strong emotional state, your child just likes the feeling he gets (it’s pleasurable and fun) when he does hand flapping – self-soothing feels good, after all.
  4. When your kid is trying to communicate – He wants to communicate and express his feelings like when he’s happy, excited, or angry.
  5. When your child has challenged developmental skills – Affecting his communication, behavior, and social skills – hand flapping is common with another repetitive movement such as bouncing or spinning.

Warnings of hand flapping

Even though hand flapping isn’t always a bad thing, this without a doubt is also a sign of autism; hence it’s important to realize the alarming signs and intervene as early as you can before any bigger problems and injuries occur.

Here’s a list of hand-flapping red flags for your awareness:

  • When it occurs frequently and for longer durations.
  • When it interferes with your kiddo’s development.
  • When it’s disruptive to others.
  • When it’s preventing your child from participating or interacting with peers or others.
  • When it affects your kid’s ability to learn.
  • When he’s more than 3 years of age but still shows frequent hand flapping.
  • When it’s harmful to your child (self-injury occurs) and other peers.

If you observe your child’s movements are harmful, consult your doctor as soon as possible. Don’t try to manage it yourself – you need professional help.

Managing your child who hand flaps

Foremost, know the root cause and the reason behind why your kiddo hand flaps. Most of the time, children communicate through their behaviors, and understanding why they stim is vital. Positive behavior support to your kid is significantly a must-do.

Managing his hand flapping is a good choice rather than controlling him and forcing him to stop. Again, the goal here is to encourage self-control, not to control your kid yourself. However, a vital reminder is don’t stop hand flapping without replacing it with a more appropriate activity.

The tips below may be helpful in your assessment and management:

  • Evaluate the situation – What triggers the behavior and if you can, know what happen.
  • Eliminate or reduce the triggers – Lower stressors or provide a calming environment.
  • Intervene – When you see any unsafe behavior.
  • Re-direct his attention – When you see prolong hand flapping.Get involved timely – know when to intervene and when not to respond, at all.
  • Peaceful environment – Create a safe and calm environment near your kid.
  • Play activities – Games involving hand clapping (Hi-Five), hand pressing (in a prayer position), hand squeezing (use a ball or a small toy), hand washing acting, or hand rubbing.
  • Therapeutic Communication – Talk to your child and encourage participation towards other family members or peers. Try to voice out your kid’s non-verbal behaviors to simple words with positive phrasing.

If the hand flapping is not causing a problem or your kid can easily be redirected from it, let him be – there’s no need for you to stop him, however, be vigilant for anything that may cause injury.

If you see any alarming signs of hand flapping, unfortunately, you need to act appropriately, and I recommend resisting the self-denial thing – it’s best to intervene now and have your child assessed by his pediatrician.

Early detection and management, as we know, is always the key, and there are behavioral and occupational therapies (like family and individual therapies) available for concerns like this – be patient, open-minded, more flexible, and supportive to your child, in time, he will learn to self-control.

Hand flapping as a sign of autism

Father and daughter are holding the words "Autism" on their hands. Hand flapping is an early sign of potential autism in babies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stressed the importance of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) screening, and the first 3 years of your child’s developmental milestones are crucial in recognizing something wrong.

Children who hand flap generally look the same – they all resemble a bird flying for the first time. What’s distinct for this behavior associated with autism is that it can go on for longer periods, done every day, and you may see your child being disruptive to others.

Also, hand flapping may be accompanied by another behavior like obvious less social awareness and participation to his peers. An important note, for doctors to confirm if it’s autism, it has to have disturbances from the following 3 areas.

  1. Social relatedness – Involves impairment in non-verbal communication, peer relationships, and social interactions with others. Reciprocity or treating others the way they treat us plays an important role in the development and continuation of relationships among others.
  2. Communication – Delay or lack of spoken language/verbal communication.
  3. Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors – Adherence to non-functional routines or rituals, motor mannerisms, and repetitive language or movements (stereotypies).

A child at risk for autism might move his hands, fingers, or other body parts oddly and repetitively.

FAQs

Can hand flapping be normal?

Yes, there’s no doubt that most children hand flaps, adults too (though minimal), and it’s perfectly normal. You can’t say your child is deviating from normal development if he shows hand flapping or a professional doctor can’t diagnose ASDs or other related conditions just because a child hand flaps alone.

Although this behavior of children is commonly associated with ASDs, hand flapping is not always a problem. However, a cause of concern is hand flapping more than the acceptable limits, and another few uncontrolled body movements accompany such behavior.

Again, if this is the case, be wise and have your kid evaluated by his doctor asap.

Why are children more prone to hand flapping?

Sensory integration is the process by which your baby receives information through his senses, organizes this information, and uses it in everyday activities.

Many of your kid’s “firsts” generally take in information as he develops his senses and learns from it.

Some examples of your child developing his senses are the following:

– Seeing bright lights for the 1st time.
– Smelling the aroma of foods in the house or as you introduce foods into his mouth to feed. Even the 1st time you introduce your breast to him to breastfeed.
– Tasting the food or milk you gave.
– Feeling the physical world where you brought him out.
– Hearing your lullabies and other cute little things like singing, telling a story, imitating his coos, calling him baby names, and as you tell him plenty of “I love you.”
– Feeling your embrace, gentle taps, and sweet little tangos as you put him to sleep.

There will always be a time when your kiddo (especially kids with a challenged sensory system) can’t take much of the sensory information at once; hence your kid hand flaps or shows other self-soothing behaviors like shouting, stumping, giggling, thumb sucking, jumping over and over, twirling, sitting on the ground, biting his nails, and headbanging (don’t forget to take extra care for this one) to re-regulate his sensory system and calm him.

Remember that your child will keep engaging his senses to learn about the world around him – as he grows and achieves milestones. Take note also that kids are unique and handle sensory information differently – this is why some kids hand flap while others don’t, or some kids obviously stim a lot while you don’t even realize it for other kids.

As adults, we do better in taking in sensory information – we generally don’t even notice the subtle self-soothing we do from time to time.

Does hand flapping go away?

The answer for this is a yes and a no. I believe it’s safe to answer yes as research revealed some kids outgrown hand flapping. The behavior typically appears before 12 months of age, peak soon thereafter, and subsequently decline rapidly.

In many cases involving ADS or other neurological and developmental differences, however, children don’t stop this behavior. For them, this behavior is soothing and a need.

In the same study mentioned above, 98% of children stopped the repetitive movements when cued and movements resolved in 5% of the children, improved in 33%, movements unchanged in 50%, and sadly – 13% of the children movements worsened.

As parents, you’re your kid’s main support. You’re his haven – be consistent and create a positive change for him.

Why punishing your child who hand flaps can be harmful?

Punishing your child when he stims might be your management approach, but did you know that this may cause lasting harm to your kid’s self-esteem?

This can also undermine his sense of bodily autonomy and can leave him with feelings of trauma. Note that hand flapping has a purpose and is basically okay – especially when doing so is not harmful to your kid.

Punishing your child is not helpful and does not address the root cause of his behavior. Instead, this can make his emotions more out of control and erode his trust toward you.

Remember the causes of stemming, and your kid doesn’t exactly understand why he’s having such behavior. By punishing your child, you may be triggering anxiety and fear hence worsening his behavior.

Conclusion

In general, children with strong emotions tend to hand flaps and, by doing so, may help them calm down, self-soothe, or re-regulate their body, but this is not always about autism.

You may even experience stimming yourself as an adult, not hand flapping exactly. Still, another repetitive movement, you stim without even realizing it – it’s the same thought, we all need to self-soothe as needed.

Over time, achieving self-control can improve your child’s behavior and, therefore, social skills and life. Unfortunately, stimming behaviors can come and go according to circumstances. Some get better, but sadly, data showed many remained unchanged. It takes patience, understanding, and your support is much needed – help your child achieve self-control.

Don’t be discouraged when you see this condition in your child – a compassionate therapist can help. Our children are blessings regardless of whatever. So take it easy, you’re doing great – just so you know.

Nina is a licensed nurse and a mother of one son, Aidan. She is currently working as a nurse in a mineral processing plant in Mindanao, Philippines. She loves reading, research, and can't say no to camping - all types. If given a chance, she would love to learn horseback riding and martial arts.

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