What is flapping hands?

Flapping hands, also known as hand flapping, is a common behavior in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It involves moving the hands rapidly back and forth in a repetitive motion. Hand flapping is a self-stimulatory behavior, also known as a “stim.” Stims are repetitive movements or sounds that people with ASD use to stimulate or soothe themselves.

What does hand flapping look like?

When a person is flapping their hands, they will hold their arms bent at the elbows and rapidly shake their hands back and forth. The flapping may involve the fingers, wrists, or entire arms. It often occurs when a person is excited, stressed, or overstimulated. Some characteristics of hand flapping include:

  • Hands shaking or waving rapidly and repetitively
  • Fingers splaying out or coming together while flapping
  • Flapping that occurs for a minute or longer
  • Arms appearing loose or tense during flapping
  • Eyes staring off into space or watching the hands while flapping

Hand flapping movements can range from small and subtle to very large and exaggerated. Some people flap their hands beside their body, while others flail their arms around their head and torso. The flapping may occur on just one side or alternate between both hands. It can happen while standing, sitting, walking, or during any other activity.

Why do people flap their hands?

Hand flapping and other stims serve several purposes for people with ASD:

  • Self-regulation – Flapping can help regulate emotional states. The repetitive motion has a calming or exciting effect that counteracts feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, or overwhelm.
  • Sensory stimulation – The movement provides visual, tactile, and proprioceptive input. This can satisfy sensory cravings or help bypass sensory overloads.
  • Communication – Flapping may express joy, displeasure, or other emotions. Some people flap as a nonverbal way to answer “yes” or “no.”
  • Focus – The stimming can aid concentration during learning, work, or social situations that require too much executive functioning.
  • Comfort – Repeated motions are predictable and soothing. Flapping provides comfort in stressful environments.

Flapping hands helps people with ASD to self-regulate their emotions, satisfy sensory needs, communicate, focus, and find comfort. These functions make flapping a beneficial coping mechanism for many autistic individuals.

When does hand flapping occur?

People with ASD flap their hands in various situations, including:

  • When feeling stressed or overloaded by too much sensory input or social demands
  • During exciting events like parties or special interests
  • When concentrating deeply or thinking through challenging cognitive tasks
  • While transitioning between activities or settings
  • In response to noises, lights, smells, or other stimuli in the environment
  • When expressing strong emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, or frustration
  • During conversation to affirm, reject, or replace spoken language
  • To self-soothe discomfort, anxiety, boredom, or too much energy
  • To get attention or ask for something without words

Hand flapping arises most commonly during states of stress, excitement, focus, and transition. Certain settings like school, parties, noisy public spaces also tend to evoke flapping behaviors.

Does hand flapping go away?

For many autistic people, hand flapping is a lifelong habit. The behavior often first appears during early childhood and continues through adolescence and adulthood. However, flapping may decrease or change in some individuals over time.

There are a few reasons hand flapping could reduce with age:

  • As language and self-regulation skills develop, flapping becomes less necessary for communication and emotional regulation.
  • Maturing social awareness and desire to fit in may motivate some to mask stims.
  • Growing ability to recognize oncoming stressors enables preventative calming strategies.
  • Access to alternative stims like fidget toys and chewelry provides substitutes for flapping.
  • Changing sensory interests reduces pleasure and motivation to flap.

But even if flapping slows down, many autistic adults continue to stim in some situations. Suppressing stims altogether can be unhealthy. Hand flapping often resurges during times of stress, excitement, fatigue, or sensory overload. The behavior remains an ingrained self-regulation skill for most.

Difference between flapping and tics

Hand flapping is often confused with motor tics seen in Tourette’s syndrome. But there are some distinguishing characteristics between flapping and tics:

Flapping Tics
Performed consciously to self-regulate Experienced as involuntary movements or vocalizations
Occurs during states of stress, excitement, or focus Preceded by a sensory tickle or urge in the affected body part
Associated with autism spectrum disorder Key feature of Tourette’s syndrome and related tic disorders
Repetitive and rhythmical motion Sudden, rapid, unpredictable movements or vocalizations
Calms or stimulates the senses Releases tension from involuntary urge to tic

Though flapping can resemble certain motor tics, the underlying cause and experience differ. Tics are involuntary and often preceded by an urge, while flapping is intentional and aimed at self-regulation.

Hand flapping and other self-stims

Hand flapping is one of many self-stimulatory behaviors exhibited by people with ASD. Other common stims include:

  • Body rocking – swaying back and forth while seated
  • Head banging – rhythmically hitting the head with the hand
  • Leg shaking – rapidly bouncing or shaking a leg
  • Lining up toys – arranging objects in patterns
  • Echolalia – repeating words or phrases
  • Hums and grunts – making loud monotone noises
  • Finger tapping – tapping the fingers against the thumb
  • Spinning/flicking – twirling or flipping objects near the eyes

Like hand flapping, these repetitive behaviors provide sensory input and soothing structure. Autistic people may display multiple different stims. Flapping often co-occurs with finger tapping, rocking, pacing, spinning objects, and vocal stims like echolalia.

Is hand flapping harmful?

Hand flapping is generally not harmful to a person who stims in this way. The behavior provides more benefits than disadvantages for autistic individuals. Potential benefits include:

  • Regulation of emotional states
  • Reduced sensory overload and stress
  • Increased ability to concentrate and learn
  • Outlet for communication and expression
  • Comfort through repetition and motion

If flapping is restricted or stigmatized, autistic people can experience greater anxiety, overwhelm, meltdowns, and shutdowns. However, there are a few cases where flapping may cause difficulties:

  • Risk of self-injury – Flapping too hard could hypothetically cause hand/wrist pain, bruising, or strains.
  • Social stigma – Flapping is sometimes judged as weird or inappropriate, leading to bullying or exclusion.
  • Classroom disruption – Vigorous flapping could distract peers in school settings.
  • Skill interference – Excessive flapping may hinder development of speech or other skills.

These potential issues are heavily outweighed by the benefits for most autistic people who flap. But some adjustments can optimize flapping to avoid problems:

  • Provide padded gloves or toys to flap gently.
  • Teach peers to accept and respect differences in movement.
  • Set up a designated calming space for flapping breaks.
  • Use alternative communication so flapping isn’t the only outlet.
  • Reward sitting calmly and raise expectations gradually.

With supportive accommodations, hand flapping can serve as a healthy self-regulatory tool.

How to support hand flapping

Parents, teachers, and caregivers can provide support for autistic individuals who flap their hands in the following ways:

  • Acceptance – Understand flapping is a natural behavior that helps them self-regulate.
  • Respect – Refrain from stopping, grabbing, or criticizing flapping.
  • Calming spaces – Provide access to low stimulus areas for flapping privately.
  • Fidgets – Supply various handheld toys that encourage subtle flapping motions.
  • Focus redirection – If needed, gently guide their attention instead of restricting.
  • Visual cues – Post flapping reminder signs or pictures in classrooms.
  • Model tolerance – Demonstrate accepting attitudes toward stims for peers to follow.

Promoting a supportive environment where differences are valued enables autistic people to gain the full benefits of flapping without shame or suppression.

Hand flapping and autism

Up to 93% of autistic children and adults engage in hand flapping and other repetitive motor behaviors. Flapping is particularly common among those with low IQs and language levels. Features of ASD that relate to flapping include:

  • Sensory processing differences – Many autistic people are hypo- or hypersensitive to stimuli. Flapping provides soothing input.
  • Need for sameness – Repetitive motions like flapping offer structure and predictability.
  • Communication challenges – Flapping expresses emotions and replaces speech for some.
  • Developmental delays – Differences in cognitive, motor, and regulatory skills drive flapping.
  • Executive functioning deficits – Flapping helps concentration, focus, and organization.

Hand flapping helps address many of the core challenges faced by people with ASD. That is why flapping behaviors are so intrinsically linked to autism.

Is hand flapping required for an ASD diagnosis?

No, hand flapping is not required for an autism diagnosis. In fact, no single behavior definitively indicates ASD. Flapping and other repetitive movements are just one of many possible symptoms.

The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ASD focus on social communication deficits and restricted/repetitive behaviors. But many specific therapies like flapping are not mandatory. Autistic people exhibit different stims based on their interests, development, and environment.

Some autistic individuals flap frequently while others rarely or never flap their hands. An official ASD diagnosis is based on the overall symptom pattern rather than any single stim like flapping.


Hand flapping is a common self-stimulatory behavior seen in many autistic people. The rapid, repetitive hand movements provide sensory input, communicate emotions, improve focus, and help self-regulation. Flapping often occurs during states of excitement, stress, or transition. This stim is a beneficial tool that enables autistic individuals to manage emotions, interact socially, and learn. With understanding and accommodations, flapping hands can enhance well-being and success for people on the autism spectrum.

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