Unstrange Mind

Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

Why Do So Many Autistic People Flap Our Hands?

This is an edited re-posting of a blog post that originally appeared on June 9, 2014.

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hands

[image description: rainbow colored hands in silhouette, upraised and reaching out with joy.]

The saying goes, “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person.” That was really hammered home for me today as I watched a short video in which an Autistic man explains why Autistic people flap our hands . . . . and pretty much nothing he said matched up with my own experience. A few of the things he said even bothered me.

My intention is not to erase what he said, however. His view of why he used to flap his hands is just as valid as my view of why I still flap my hands. There are many ways of being Autistic.

(Since the video was not captioned, I took the time to make a transcript of it for those who can’t hear or understand it. That was fortunate as the original video was removed from YouTube.)

The video explains, “It comes down to repetition. When we, as people with Asperger’s, are in a really unknown situation or we’re in a situation where there’s a lot of anxiety […], there’s a lot of stress, the way that we manage that, is because generally it’s overwhelming we do repetitive motions, because then we at least know, hey, if I do this I have complete control over it. And I know that whatever I do, I have complete control and it’s going to happen the same time every time. Therefore, I get a little bit of comfort from it.”

This does not even begin to describe why I flap my hands or make other “Autistic movements.” Yes, I flap in stress. I flap in overwhelm. I flap when I get hurt. The video presents hand flapping as if it only occurs as a result of stress or anxiety, however, and that is not at all true for me.

I flap my hands when I am happy. I flap them when I am content. I flap them a lot when I get excited about something. I have as many different ways of flapping and twisting and ruffling and fluttering my hands as I have emotions and emotional combinations that wash over and through me. My hands are like barometers of my emotional climate.

There are plenty of things I do to try to increase the amount of control in my life, but flapping my hands is not really one of those things. I don’t flap my hands to have something reliable and constant in my life. I fill that need with other things, like small stuffed animals I carry in my pocket or ritual ways of doing certain things. For example, there is a little ritual to how my boyfriend and I say good night in the evening and that ritual comforts me, gives me a sense of stability and predictability in my life, and helps me to make the transition from visiting with him to being alone again. I do other things like always removing the ice cube trays from the freezer in the same order, always putting the same number of ice cubes in my glass, always walking or bicycling the same route to get places, always brushing my teeth for the same number of minutes every night, and so on.

These things serve my need to have a predictable, orderly world that is under my control as much as possible. The more I am able to feel a sense of control over my life, the calmer and happier I am. I suspect this is true for most or all people, but it is quite extreme in my case. Something small, like not getting my usual seat, or having the water turned off for twenty minutes in my apartment building in the middle of the day with no warning, can make me feel like my world is coming to an end.  I am always fighting back the forces of chaos. But I do not wage this war with hand flaps.

The most common reason for me to flap my hands is that I am very happy and excited about something. My boyfriend told me that he loves to see my hands flap because there is a lovely joy that goes along with it that is fresh and appealing, without guile or artifice. If I recall correctly, he used the word “childlike” and meant it in a beautifully loving and respectful sense. Over the month of December, we went through a Jacquie Lawson advent calendar together every morning right after having breakfast together and he got to see lots of hand-flapping on the days when the calendar surprise was a steam locomotive or a peacock spreading his bright tail feathers or a mansion kitchen staffed entirely by giant teddy bears.

I’d see these things that made me really happy and excited and there would go the hands. By the time I was aware that I was flapping my hands, they’d already been going wild all on their own without my awareness. My hand flapping is so often an expression of sheer, unadulterated joy — pretty much the exact opposite of what is being taught in the video. Asperger Experts says, “it’s basically a giant signal saying, “hey! I’m not comfortable right now. Things are too much pressure or too much, just, overwhelm of sensation to the point that I need to do something to feel better about it.”

Yes, I can feel pretty overwhelmed by joy! But the kind of flapping I do when I’m not comfortable and suffering is another kind of hand flap. It’s a whole language of flaps and twists and shifts and strokes and claps. My hands speak my emotions so clearly, but only to those who are willing to learn what they are saying. My hand flapping is not a single message of suffering. It is a multi-faceted expression of my complex and beautiful emotional life.

As an alexithymic, I’m not usually aware of my emotions. So I even watch my own hands flapping away to help me understand what emotions I’m experiencing. I am “blind” to my emotions — I have emotions, usually very strong ones, but I am unable to know what I am feeling so I have to play detective and watch my body for clues. My hands are always telling me what I am feeling. Without my hand flaps, I would not be anywhere near as connected to my inner life. Without my hand flaps, I would struggle so much more every day, just trying to understand what my body and spirit were experiencing. My hands are my teachers and they educate me about my deepest self every day.

While I feel as if my three-dimensional experience of hand flapping is described in a very one-dimensional way in the video, that’s not what really bothered me about the message. I was bothered by the way hand flapping was presented as something bad, undesirable, ridiculous looking, and mainly restricted only to small children.  The video admitted that hand flapping is necessary, but presented it as something annoying and embarrassing that should be substituted as quickly as possible with something less visible, like repetitive thoughts.

“You shouldn’t just try to stop it because then they’re just going to find some other way of gaining comfort. […] All of a sudden, they might gain a tic, like [clicks tongue several times] and then that’s just even more annoying.”

No.

You shouldn’t try to stop hand flapping because it is part of who we are. Would you like it if everyone were trying to make you stop smiling? Or tucking your hair behind your ear? Or putting your sunglasses on top of your head? Or crossing your legs when you sat? That is what people are doing to us when they try to make us stop flapping our hands: they are trying to force us to stop moving in ways that are natural, healthy, and comfortable to us.

(And when I say “we” and “us,” I mean those of us who do flap our hands or otherwise naturally move in different ways from the rest of society. Not all Autists move in the same ways and that includes the fact that not all of us rock or flap or spin (although the vast majority of us do) so don’t assume someone is not Autistic because you don’t see them moving in different ways. Or they speak. Or hold a job. As I always say, there is no one way of being Autistic.)

This video presents hand flapping as a necessary evil — something that is annoying but has to be tolerated because we do it to soothe anxiety and might end up doing something even more annoying if we’re forced to stop. In my opinion, hand flapping is a fundamental manifestation of the native nervous system of those who flap. It is how we are built, it is what we do. The focus should not be on whether it “might look ridiculous” or whether it’s better to “[transition] into listening to the same song over and over again, [or]  say the same thing in [one’s] mind over and over again.” the focus should be on building a society that understands that we don’t all move our bodies the same way and that’s okay.

“You know, you don’t see many people that are forty doing this [waves hands].” I am fifty and I flap my hands. Many of my friends who flap their hands are older than me. I know people in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties who flap their hands and even someone in his seventies who flaps his hands. It’s okay to move differently from others. It’s okay to have a different neurology and it’s okay to be who you are.

There is a much worse risk that comes from trying to suppress hand flapping than developing an “annoying tic.”

When I was a child, I felt like there was no place that was safe, no place where it was okay to be who I am, no place where I could just relax and be myself. Everybody was trying to give me the advice of “just relax and be yourself,” but when I would actually do that, I would be yelled at, criticized, punished, bullied. I lived in fear and anger because nothing I did, no matter what, was ever right or good enough. At school, I was bullied by the students and even by many of the teachers.

At home, I was blamed for the bullying and told I was bringing it on myself. In a misguided attempt to shape me into someone who would not deserve to be bullied so much, all my mannerisms and stims and quirks were under attack. I felt like I was constantly picked apart for behaviors like walking on tiptoe, clearing my throat, flicking my fingers, spinning around, talking too loudly, grunting instead of talking, and so on. I spent . . . wasted . . . so much energy and focus on trying to make my body and face and voice do all the proper things. But no matter how hard I tried, I kept always doing something wrong and getting called out for it.

As a result, I was filled with so much anger toward everyone around me and so much self-loathing. I felt like nothing I did was ever right and I had no place to relax – school was filled with bullies and home was filled with picking apart my stims. I grew to hate everyone and often would lose myself in bitter daydreams with imagery I don’t care to re-visit now. My whole life was torment and I was in agony. This is the reason to let Autistic people be, not the fear that they might develop new behaviors that are even more annoying to the people around them.

The video’s reason for tolerating hand flapping was all about what makes other people feel okay or uncomfortable and had almost nothing to do with what the Autistic person wants and needs. Hand flapping almost had to be defined in that very one-dimensional manner, because if hand flapping is nothing but a comfort for excruciating anxiety, it is easier to decide to tolerate the “annoying” and “ridiculous” behavior, but if hand flapping is something that can be a sign of happiness as well as of more difficult emotions it’s harder to justify allowing people to be “annoying” just because they are happy.

But the problem is not with the hand flapping. The problem comes when the decision has been made that hand flapping is annoying or weird and not natural and adorable (which happens to be how it appears to me. I love to see people hand flapping! It makes me happy to see someone making a happy hand flap.)

The makers of the video may be Asperger’s Experts, but they are most surely not Maxfield Experts, because I’m not at all like what was portrayed in that video and I have many Autistic friends who are  similar to me. Of course some Autistic people must resemble the portrait that was painted by the educational video purporting to explain hand flapping because that is how those two young men experienced their own Autistic movements. I don’t want to erase their voice when raising mine. But I also want to make sure their message is not the only one available to people.

So, as I said, the lesson here is that if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person. There is not just one way to be Autistic. I’m sure the makers of the hand flapping video were expressing the truth about what being Autistic is like for them. Just be careful to remember that no one (including me!) speaks for all Autists. It is a pretty safe bet that there are also Autists out there who aren’t like the description in the video but aren’t like me, either.

So when you see someone flapping their hands, don’t make assumptions about what it means. There are some meanings that are more likely and some that are less likely, but better than guessing — better even than statistically-backed guessing — is getting to know the individual Autist and learning what hand flapping means for them.  Engaging with humans is almost never a one-size-fits-all scenario. We Autists are individuals — it’s good to learn general autism data, but “at the end of the day” there is no substitute for learning the language, including the body language, of the special person in your life. Or of yourself, if that’s how it’s all playing out for you.

But no matter what the flaps mean where you are, I do hope you will take one thing seriously that I said: don’t hate on the flaps, don’t be afraid of them, don’t judge them so harshly. Learn to live with the hand flaps because they are a good and useful thing for Autists, no matter what purpose they serve for each individual Autistic person. And, who knows: if you don’t already, there may come a day when you begin to see the beauty in hand flaps. Hand flapping and other Autistic stims are quite exuberant and lovely if you remember that they are a person’s heart and spirit made visible in time and space for all to behold.

1 Comment

  1. It gives me warm fuzzies when I see my boy’s hands flap because, like you, he does it when he’s very excited. Heaven help anyone who tells him to stop because I will put them in their place. Thanks for writing this.

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