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.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, April 2019