This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
If you ask someone to imagine an autistic person, what image will they conjure? Most likely whatever image comes to mind involves a person flapping their hands. One of the most stereotypical stims associated with autism, hand flapping has come to be one of the defining aspects of autism. While not all autistics engage in hand flapping, many of us do, though, for many, hand flapping is a complicated thing.
As one of the things that clearly marks us as different, hand flapping has been very stigmatized. Many autistics have been traumatized by the phrase “quiet hands” and the actions that often accompanied these words. In ABA programs and other similar “therapies”, hand flapping is viewed as something to be squashed out of an autistic person, often by force. Far too many autistic people have been forcibly stopped from flapping by adults who thought it was for the child’s own good. Many who try to stop this action do so because they want the child to be “indistinguishable from peers;” an idea rooted in ableism.
Ableism is what drives people to force a child to hide their autistic nature. Ableism says that a bullied autistic child needs to change themselves so they won’t be bullied rather than telling the other children not to bully. Ableism says that anything that makes a person noticeably different is bad. Ableism says quiet hands.
There are so many autistic adults who have been traumatized out of flapping their hands. However, there is a growing movement to reclaim hand flapping. The autistic community is working to encourage autistic people to flap their hands, to fight back against the ableism and be themselves. We make gifs and videos of ourselves stimming to encourage others to do the same and to help normalize our body language.
Hand flapping is more than just an action. Flapping is a way to self-regulate. It’s a way to calm the senses or feed them, depending on a person’s needs at the time. Flapping is a form of expression. I flap my hands in one way when I’m happy. I flap them in another when I’m anxious or uncomfortable. I flap in still another way if I’m pain or hurting. I flap to express myself. I flap to regulate my emotions. I flap to regulate my senses.
Hand flapping is one of our most stigmatized stims, but we are working to reclaim that. Hand flapping can be such a vital tool for autistic people as well as being one of the many ways we communicate. It may have a complicated history for many of us, but we will reclaim our natural body language. We will reclaim our flapping.