If you’ve ever seen a child flap their arms when they’re excited, you might have wondered if it’s a sign of autism. While it can be a symptom of autism, it’s important to remember that we should not generalize all children who flap their arms to autism.
What is arm flapping?
Arm flapping is a type of physical behavior that often involves the rhythmic, repetitive motion of the arms. Typically, the person will extend their arms and move them up and down, not dissimilar to the motion of a bird flapping its wings. Simply speaking, without context, arm flapping is a behaviour that we all do at some point in our lives.
In some autistic individuals, this behaviour is often observed in both children and adults when they are excited, overwhelmed, or anxious, as it can serve as a self-stimulatory or self-soothing mechanism. It is not a behaviour exclusive to any single condition, and can be observed in a variety of contexts across different age groups. While it is often associated with autism spectrum disorder due to its frequency among individuals with this condition, arm flapping alone is not a definitive sign of autism. Understanding the reasons behind arm flapping and its connection to an individual’s environment can help us understand more about the behaviour itself.
What is Self-Stimulation or “Stimming”?
Self-stimulation in autistic individuals, often referred to as “stimming”, is a term used to describe certain repetitive behaviours or actions. Our behaviours always serve a function to us and behaviours for self-stimulation nonetheless, also serves a function. Everyone engages in some kind of self-stimulation behaviour. Think of it as something people do to help themselves calm down, focus, or handle overwhelming situations.
Let’s consider some examples that might make sense. You know how some people might tap their foot or twirl their hair when they’re anxious or thinking? Or how some people chew gum to help them concentrate? These are similar to what we mean by stimming.
For autistic individuals, stimming might include actions like rocking back and forth, flapping their hands, spinning, or repeating words or phrases. These behaviors can help them manage their emotions, deal with sensory overload (when the world feels too loud, too bright, or too overwhelming), or simply provide comfort and pleasure. The examples of stimming for autistic individuals may look more distinct may be because they perceive our world in a different sensory lens. It’s important to note that while stimming is often associated with autism, many people, even those not on the autism spectrum, engage in their own forms of self-stimulatory behaviors.
Why do some People With Autism flap their arms?
Autistic individuals may exhibit arm flapping as a form of stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior. This refers to repetitive body movements or repetitive movement of objects which can involve any of the senses. The reasons behind this can vary greatly among individuals with autism. Some may engage in arm flapping as a way to cope with overstimulation, manage anxiety, or express their emotions, particularly excitement or frustration. It can also be a means to self-soothe when experiencing stress or discomfort. For others, these repetitive movements may simply be pleasurable or comforting, providing a form of sensory input that they find satisfying. While not every person with autism will flap their arms, it is one of the more commonly recognized behaviors associated with the condition. However, the presence of arm flapping alone is not sufficient to diagnose autism, as the condition is characterized by a wide range of other symptoms and behaviors as well. The context of arm flapping and the environment the child is in also plays a huge factor.
Is arm flapping always a sign of autism?
No, arm flapping is not always a sign of autism. While it is true that this behaviour is commonly associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it can also be observed in a variety of other circumstances and does not automatically indicate the presence of ASD. For instance, young children often flap their arms when they are excited, surprised, or anxious. This behaviour typically diminishes as the child grows and develops other ways of expressing these emotions. Children also learn from observing and watching and sometimes they could have just seen someone flap their arms and learn to copy that behaviour.
Additionally, arm flapping can be a characteristic of other developmental disorders or neurological conditions, or simply a unique behavioural quirk in some individuals. Therefore, while arm flapping can be one piece of the puzzle in diagnosing autism, it should not be viewed in isolation. A comprehensive evaluation of the individual’s behaviours, social interactions, communication skills, and developmental history is crucial for an accurate diagnosis.
Other reasons for arm flapping
Apart from autism, there are numerous other reasons why an individual might engage in arm flapping. In young children, arm flapping is often a normal part of their development and can be a way to express strong emotions such as joy, excitement, or frustration. It can also be seen when a child is engrossed in a captivating activity or seeking sensory input. As mentioned above, children may have observed another person or even a cartoon in a TV show flap their arms and have learned to copy this action with little relation to its environment context.
Furthermore, arm flapping can be a symptom of other neurological or developmental disorders such as Rett syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, or ADHD. In adults, while less common, it can still be a response to high levels of excitement or stress, or a habitual mannerism. In some cases, it could be a sign of a neurological condition or an involuntary muscle movement disorder. It’s important to remember that the presence of arm flapping alone is typically not cause for concern. However, if it is paired with other unusual behaviors or developmental delays, it might be worthwhile to seek professional advice. There is no harm keeping an eye on arm flapping and take notes on its occurrences.
When should parents or caregivers be concerned about arm flapping?
Parents or caregivers may want to consult with a professional if arm flapping is accompanied by other signs of developmental delays or behavioral concerns. Another factor that warrants some attention is if the intensity and frequency of arm flapping heavily affects their daily routines and learning. For example, if your child is arm flapping most of the time at school resulting in the teacher spending majority of class time trying to calm them down, the child is missing out on focusing and learning in class. Another example, is if the child is arm flapping enough that each routine at home is disrupted or delayed.
Additional behaviour concerns that may be related to autism is the presence of difficulties with social interactions, limited or delayed speech, repetitive behaviors beyond arm flapping, intense fixations on certain interests, or heightened sensitivity to sensory input such as sounds, textures, or lights. It’s also worth noting that if arm flapping occurs alongside self-harming behaviours, it may be prudent to seek advice. Remember, early intervention can be crucial in managing any potential conditions, including autism. However, it’s also crucial to note that occasional arm flapping, especially in young children or in response to excitement or anxiety, is usually no cause for alarm. Each child develops in their own way, and this can include a range of behaviours as they learn to navigate their world.
Coping strategies for families: Understanding and embracing differences
Embracing the differences and unique behaviours of each family member, such as arm flapping, is an essential part of fostering a supportive and understanding environment. If a child or family member is engaging in behaviours like arm flapping due to a condition like autism, it’s essential to learn as much as possible about the condition and how it influences their experiences and behaviours. Everyone expresses themselves in a different way and if arm flapping is how your child is expressing themselves, then that is okay. It is important to not interfere and inhibit these behaviours until consulting an ABA professional as arm flapping itself does not warrant any safety risk or developmental concern.
Training, support groups, and professional guidance can all provide invaluable insights and practical strategies for coping and building understanding. Rather than trying to suppress these behaviours, consider ways to ensure they are safe and non-disruptive. If the arm flapping stems from stress or overstimulation, explore methods to create a calming environment. Communication is key: encourage your loved one to express their feelings and needs as best they can. Recognize and celebrate their unique strengths and abilities, reminding them that everyone has their own ways of interacting with the world. Finally, remember to practice patience and empathy, reminding yourself and others that behaviours like arm flapping are not ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ but simply different ways of processing and responding to the world around us. Let’s aim to foster a more inclusive society rather than a judgemental one for our kiddos!
Is arm flapping when excited normal?
Yes, arm flapping itself when excited can be considered normal, especially among young children or in moments of intense emotion. However, if it’s is causing disruptions to their daily functioning and learning, coupled with other developmental concerns or impairs daily activities, it might be worth seeking professional advice.
Is arm flapping an early sign of autism?
Arm flapping can be an early sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as it is a common form of “stimming,” or self-stimulatory behaviour often observed in individuals with autism. However, it’s important to note that arm flapping alone, especially in young children, does not necessarily indicate autism, and a diagnosis would consider a range of behaviours and developmental and environmental factors.
Is stimming not always autism?
Yes, stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is not always indicative of autism. While it’s commonly associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), many people, including those not on the autism spectrum, engage in various forms of stimming, such as tapping feet, twirling hair, or biting nails.
Why does my 10 year old flap his hands when excited?
Your 10-year-old may flap his hands when excited as a way to express intense emotions or to self-soothe, which is a behavior often seen in children, even those not on the autism spectrum. However, if it’s is causing disruptions to their daily functioning and learning, coupled with other developmental concerns or impairs daily activities, it might be worth seeking professional advice.
Janice is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Special Education. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from Queen’s University, Belfast. She has worked with and case managed children and youth with autism and other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in home and residential setting since 2013.