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When should you worry about hand flapping?

Hand flapping usually occurs in preschoolers or toddlers and looks like the child is rapidly waving his or her hands at the wrist while holding the arms bent at the elbow. Think of a baby bird trying to take off for the first time.

Hand flapping is usually seen when the child is in a heightened emotional state, such as excited or anxious, and sometimes even upset. Parents are often concerned when they see hand flapping because it can be one of the signs seen in children with autism.

Some children with autism “hand flap” as a self-stimulatory behavior. Other self-stimulatory behaviors sometimes seen in children with autism include rocking and spinning. These behaviors help them calm themselves or regulate their emotional states. Children may also do it when excited or upset, and it can be very hard to distract an autistic child away from their self-stimulatory behavior.

Hand flapping in developmentally typical children

In developmentally typical children, hand flapping looks quite the same and it also occurs when the child is in a heightened emotional state, but it's for a different purpose. It does not necessarily serve to calm them or to regulate their behavior, and they can be easily distracted away from it.

When to worry

Hand flapping in developmentally typical children can lessen or dissolve over time, but often it does not. If hand flapping is causing a problem in school or the child is receiving negative social attention from the behavior, then it's time to think about intervention. Simple behavioral therapy can help a child learn to control impulsive hand flapping.

Comments

  1. My son will be 6 soon. He has flapped his hands, when excited, since he was a baby. However, we have had some issues with inappropriate behavior with other kids, drawn out tantrums, losing focus, getting angry to the point of hitting someone or himself, doesn’t listen when told to do something. While I understand these can fall into categories of normal childhood behavior, it has become a problem at home and in school. Do you have any advice? Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Hi Caitlyn. I think trusting your instincts is very important and if you think there is something wrong then it’s worth a further look. Hand flapping alone, is often normal. But you pointed out there are several other worrisome aspects to your child’s behavior. Combined, they make me more concerned that there may be a developmental or psychosocial issue. Speak with your pediatrician about your concerns so you can get his needs better evaluated.

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  2. My baby is 6 months old and I noticed when we are feeding him rice cereal he flaps his hands and has mouth open. So that is normal behavior?

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    1. It sure is! He’s excited!

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  3. My 15 month old son flaps his arms when excited,he doesn’t attempt to talk much and doesn’t always respond to his name.He also gets very frustrated by things , which he shows physical signs of ( by clenching his fists and almost growls) should i be worried about any of this?

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    1. If the combination of these behaviors is worrying you, then yes you should be concerned. Reach out to your pediatrician who can perform a developmental screen on your son to see if he needs further evaluation. Or, you can always contact the Early Intervention program in your state (google: early intervention and the name of your state) and sign up for a free developmental evaluation. The earlier, the better!

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  4. My 3 in a half year old flaps his hands when he really excited as well, he doesn’t talk much morebabbles a lot making up his own words and when we call his name it’s like he’s day dreaming or stuck. He loves pictures or animals on books and has excessive love for sharks and dinosaurs and he’ll line them up everyday. We take him out places and he won’t care to interact with other children but my 4 in a half year old who was diagnosed with ADHD will. His pediatrician made me fill outs form of his behavior and he failed that test badly. Should I be concerned or is it still too early to tell?

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    1. Yes, I think the combination of these behaviors is what is concerning here. Talk with your pediatrician about a developmental evaluation so you can meet his needs early. Intervention is most effective when done in the preschool years!

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  5. my 5-year-old flaps her hands a lot when excited, even just a bit, and has a an expression of excitement with mouth open to go with it. She is very sociable, too sociable, and will talk to everyone. She also likes routine and gets a bit upset if we deviate from the norm. She will be going into 1st year next year and I’m really worried as to how the other children will react to her, but how do I help her without making her feel self-aware???

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    1. I’d like to add, the routine things is actually quite flexible, for example if the situation is different she understands that the routine will be different. When she does get upset it isn’t to difficult to make her understand things. So I’m inclined to believe that she simply likes routine. Just brought it up previously just in case it is relevant.

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      1. I think that’s a good point. The key here is that if the hand flapping does not bother her, then there is nothing that needs to be done. It’s only when it becomes distressing to her (if ever) that you would need to seek out therapy.

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  6. I have a 1 year old who flaps when he his exited, should I bee worried or is to soon?

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    1. Hand flapping is very common in children when excited! If he is developing normally, I would not worry at all.

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  7. My 5 year old flaps her hands a lot when excited she also does a face to go with it where her mouth is open, she even does it at school and I’m worried it will effect her. Should I be worried

    Reply
    1. Without knowing your daughter’s age and other development, I can not tell you whether or not to be worried. It is important to remember that hand flapping happens in developmentally normal kids too and so is part of a cluster of other behaviors when considered abnormal.

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  8. My daughter flaps her hands when running sometimes should I be concerned ?

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    1. Probably no, but without knowing all the details of your child’s development I cannot say for sure. Hand flapping happens in both developmentally typical and developmentally atypical children. If it bothers her, then I would ask your pediatrician’s opinion as they know her best!

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    2. Isolated hand flapping can be totally normal. It’s the whole picture that matters! So your child’s doctor and teachers will take into account all of her actions, not just this one behavior.

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  9. My daughter is 3 and shes been doing this for well over a year now..wen upset and angry..also she jumps in her crib alot and shes not good with being around other people especially adults

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    1. Hand flapping is not an uncommon behavior in children when upset. However, if you suspect other behaviors that indicate a developmental concern, then it is a good idea to discuss them with your pediatrician. Whether or not a developmental problem is identified, your doctor can help you help your daughter manage the big emotions that go along with being three.

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  10. im kind of embarassed talking about this…. i do not have autism,but i still flap my hands when im excited…like when watching a video of a famous sportsperson…i kind of imagine myself as that person and start flapping my hands…it makes me feel good…but i guess it’s not common…what category does my hand flapping fall upon?

    Reply
    1. This type of hand flapping is not uncommon and is one of the primary motor sterotypies. While there is no harm in this motion, if it causes you distress or embarrassment, treatment is available. Treatment is generally with a behavioral psychologist and involves awareness training and competing response training. It is nothing to be ashamed of in a child or an adult!

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  11. Hi, made an account solely to comment on this and am kind of disappointed that no one has made a comment before me.

    Please don’t EVER try to stop an autistic child – or ANY child for that matter – from stimming. As said in the article, it is something autistic children and neurotypical children do – but it is not something bad that should be stopped. The way this article was written heavily implies that it is a behavior that should be stopped. Forcing your autistic child to stop stimming is INCREDIBLY harmful and abusive to the child.

    Forcing your child to stop stimming INCLUDES the suggested behavioral therapy and you should NEVER force your autistic child to go to behavioral therapy to stop their stimming. The only time a stim should be “intervened” as you described it is if it’s actually harmful to the child (i.e. banging their head against a desk, hitting themselves). Hand flapping is not harmful whatsoever and if you’re wanting to get rid of it because it’s “annoying” or “worrisome” then you’re being incredibly ableist and you need to educate yourself and quit being abusive.
    I mean really, how would you feel if you were feeling anxious (best way I can describe it to people who are neurotypical and also don’t get sensory overload. Sensory overload isn’t the only thing that autistic people stim for, but it’s one. If you’re not sure what sensory overload is, look it up. It varies between each individual but I get sensory overload and for me it’s basically like 10 TVs are playing at once, and there are 50 bright lights all focusing on me and my eyes and I can feel every little thing and it’s painful.) and about to have a panic attack and doing something like clicking a pen and someone took the pencil out of your hands and started yelling at you? That would only make everything worse, wouldn’t it?

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate your point of view.

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      1. I did not get the feeling from this article that anyone implied that an autistic child should not be allowed to self stim, instead I got the feeling that a child who is not autistic and is doing this behavior could be taught other strategies with behavior management to help them control the behavior. If the behavior is hurting relationships with other children, it might be helpful for a child to learn other ways to manage their excitement.

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        1. Yes, that is indeed the point I was trying to make. The hand flapping is only a problem if it bothers the child. Thank you for your comment.

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