Autistic People Should Be Free to Flap

by Jo on February 23, 2013

“Quiet hands, Andrew.”

“Andrew, quiet hands.”

I can’t count how many times those words passed through my lips the first few years after Andrew’s autism diagnosis.

The people with the official paperwork attached to official clipboards told me it was the right thing to do.

It will help him fit in.

Flapping is an inappropriate behavior.

You need to stop him; we can help.

As young parents, the flapping was one of the very first red flags we noticed, and a clear indication that our firstborn was slipping away into a world we could not see, a world he preferred to inhabit without us.

The flapping, it scared us.

“Quiet hands, Andrew.”

But those precious chubby arms of his had a mind of their own, and despite our gentle pleas, Andrew continued to flap his way through the days, while we looked on and worried what people would think.

Pardon me while I take a moment to shake my head in slow motion as I think back to those early days, when our actions were fueled by love but often executed with ignorance.

And then one day, while at a Surfer’s Healing event in San Diego, my heart was changed forever, my mind opened up and blown away when I least expected it.

A young autistic man in his late teens was calf-deep in the Pacific, his shoulder length hair still wet from his earlier tandem ride atop a surfboard, his bright red safety vest still snugly secured around his upper torso.

His eyes were closed.

His mouth was curled into a half-smile.

His body swayed, as if to say “I am one with this big, beautiful body of water. I am equally amazing, I am just as miraculous, I too matter and make the world a better place.”

And his arms.

Those long, adolescent arms were flapping furiously and as the waves teased his toes and gently lapped against his legs, he flapped faster and faster until he was just a blur and suddenly I understood, in a way I had never understood before, and I found that I could not take my eyes off of him.

His flapping was accompanied by a joyful shriek that sounded so familiar and I let the tears roll softly down my face as I realized why: it was the same shriek I had heard so many times from my own son as his experiences and emotions coursed through his small body and propelled his hands and arms until he was flapping so fast I wondered if he would take flight.

Watching this young man in this profoundly organic state, his body and mind free of worry about anyone or anything other than what he was feeling and thinking in that precise moment,  I was able to finally see what flapping was – a beautiful expression and fundamental right of those who engage in it – and what it wasn’t – an inappropriate behavior in need of being fixed – and I knew then that I would never tell Andrew to have “quiet hands” again.

It is one of my favorite things about my son now, his flapping.

I love watching his arms build momentum, love knowing his hands and heart are free, love wondering if indeed one day he will soar into the sky, knowing that if he did I would wait forever and a day for him to come back to me.

Despite repeated attempts, I have never even come close to attaining the graceful, energetic, flawless pace and rhythm that my son’s flapping possesses, but I’m more than okay with that.

It’s just one more thing about him that’s so gloriously unique, so divinely Andrew, and it only matters that I continue on my mission to prevent anyone from stifling something that is such a big and important part of who he is.

And I am eternally grateful to that young man, who I imagine, must be in his early twenties by now.

He gave me a new perspective that summer day; a precious glimpse into and a new and deeper understanding of my son, who regards flapping in much the same way we regard breathing.

And thanks to eye-opening day so many years ago,  I now know better than to ask Andrew to hold his breath.

 

Andrew, mid-flap

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Today’s post is part of a flashblog – “Autistic People Should” – which began as a way to combat the disgusting and vilesearch engine results that pop up when someone Googles the phrase “Autistic people should.”

See photo below:

This. This is just....wrong.

Please, share this blog post, and others like it, such as Stuart Duncan’s “Autistic People Should Be,” and Amy Sequenzia’s Autistic People Should,” and help replace these vile “top searches” with messages of love, acceptance, and respect.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

jillsmo February 23, 2013 at 10:53 pm

I love this, Jo, and can totally relate. I didn’t really understand what the flapping and the jumping was about, until I started blogging and met a bunch of autistic adults, I just asked “what’s with the flapping?” and it was explained to me how the stim satisfied the sensory needs and just “feels good.” It was hugely useful information, also when I explain to his brother or other kids why he does it. “He likes it, it makes him feel good” I tell them. And that’s the end of the story. <3

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Jo February 23, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Seeing that teenager in all of his flapping glory was life-changing for me. I thought, how could anything that brought someone so much joy and peace and relief ever be considered an inappropriate behavior?

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Niksmom February 23, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Gloriously, eloquently beautiful. I can see this so clearly and it made me smile deeply. My son is not a flapper but a dancer. It’s wondrous to behold.

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Jo February 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Wondrous indeed. They are amazing, our beautiful autistic children!

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Diane February 24, 2013 at 12:14 am

“I wondered if he would take flight”….oh that made me smile! Although Riley is not a “flapper” per se, if I could harness and bottle his enthusiasm and excitement at times…I am sure I could conquer even Zumba! ;P

Once again you pulled at my ol’ heartstrings Jo! Thank you, Diane

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Alysia February 24, 2013 at 12:24 am

I have to share this. Jo, this is exactly what so many parents and teachers and others need to read.

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Kathy February 24, 2013 at 12:57 am

Love this, thanks for sharing. Our daughter bowls on a special Olympics team. My favorite place to be on Friday nights is in the midst of all the flapping, jumping, bouncing and noise. So much joy.

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Prue Mayhew February 24, 2013 at 4:01 am

Thankyou that image of the young man in the surf flapping freely bought tears to my eyes. My sister was born blind and there are many similarities in behaviour such as flapping and rocking that we are told to stop. I beleive that my lil sis is also autistic also but mum is in denial. To watch her move freely I have often thought, but what will others think? So to protect her I stop her. Next time I wont I will let her flap, rock, jump up and sway with joy. And for those that judge ‘show me how well you dance before you compare’.

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Jo February 26, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Thank you so much for stopping by Prue! You sound like an amazing big sister!

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donna street February 24, 2013 at 9:53 am

this was so beautiful to read..
i have two under 5s that are autistic. my son jumps when he is excited and its so elegant and graceful to watch..like bambi prancing through the forest! my daughter is a rocker, she spins and rocks and sometimes she pulls you towards her to join in and it is liberating! her little face when shes watching the joy you get from that moment of “i dont give a stuff..im rocking!”
after all to me its just a more joyous form of twirling your hair or bouncing your knee when sitting down…

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Geoff smith February 24, 2013 at 11:35 am

What a great article. My Ryan, my 13 year old stepson has aspergers and he has similar traits. He rubs his head with both hands furiously or the same to both of his legs. In addition he often breaks into a run of a few yards and then back again. We have never tried to stop him doing these things, it’s just a part of him that makes him unique. We love him as he is

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Alyssa February 24, 2013 at 1:14 pm

This. Just… this. May we reprint it on the flashblog’s site? (With a link to the original, of course.) More people need to see this.

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Jo February 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Hi Alyssa! I would be honored! Thank you so much for reading and I’m so happy you enjoyed it!

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Jen (Tiny Oranges) February 24, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Beautiful post.

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Robin February 24, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I loved what you wrote! Thank you. I too have a love/hate relationship with my son’s stimming. Over the years, we have tried everything to understand what brings it on, how to help him curb it especially in the classroom, and what it actually means. He is now 9 yrs. old and very verbal and it still makes me smile when I interrupt him and say…why do you do that…and he looks up smiles and says…it makes me soooo happy! From the mouths of babes.

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Tracy February 25, 2013 at 3:31 am

Nice post. My boy is 9, he was diagnosed as PDD-NOS, quirky enough to be on the spectrum, but not quirky enough to be considered Autistic or Aspergers.
His main *quirk* since he could sit up was the swaying and shaking of a toy. He now uses a hanger to shake. I call his swaying his “hipidy hop” dance. Doctors call it ADHD.
He doesn’t take the stimming toy to school, but at home when reading, watching TV, a movie or on the computer he MUST have his hanger! When we ask him why he likes to shake it, he explains “It help makes everything come alive in me. It makes it sink in and become real.” The stimming is what vibrates a whole different reality in him and makes him FEEL it. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it. He’s had plenty of people ask him over the years. He even taught his younger sister how to do it. She’s not on *the spectrum*, but she shakes her dolls and says Nolan is right, it does make it feel more alive. :) SO it really hit home whey you said he’s in his own reality, because that’s just what it’s like for my boy. Gotta love ‘em!

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Ib Grace February 25, 2013 at 9:25 pm

What a glorious post! Flap flap flap!

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Jo February 26, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Love this!!!

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Deepa February 26, 2013 at 3:38 pm

What an awesome post Jo!!! I can so relate to what you are saying. My 5 year old just loves to flap his arms and loves to open and close the door. The smile and excitement on his face when he does it or watches the door is just so satisfying for him. Its like a burst of energy running through his system and he has to let it out.

Thanks for this wonderful post!
Deepa

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BooHooMama March 2, 2013 at 11:33 am

Beautiful post, thank you! My daughter with ASD is not a flapper but if she was I would feel exactly as you do. She is however a chewer, and for years I discouraged her from chewing. Recently, I realised what a release it is for her to chew and have bought her a pretty necklace which has been designed specifically with kids like her, who need that particular kind of sensory experience, in mind.

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Moody March 2, 2013 at 8:18 pm

I almost fell off my chair the first time I saw that google suggestion. What is WRONG with people?? And I don’t mean the autistic ones! One of my son’s schoolmates has ADHD and he too was always ‘restrained’ in his ways. The kid (now 12) is a lovely young man, very smart and very helpful. I have no idea why people feel the need to judge others who have different (but that doesn’t mean less) intelligence. And it’s frightening to see that type of search results about it. I will gladly share all the links on Facebook and Twitter and if you agree, I’d like to put it on my blog as well.
Big hug to your precious gem!

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Shauna March 10, 2013 at 1:27 am

as a mom to a 2 year old daughter who flaps……thank you. I am not really sure how i came across your blog but I am so very thankful I did. My daughter is still not diagnosed yet and they use the austic word a lot yet always put it with a… “but she is so social” . She is still can’t walk but is the best butt scooter around and is also very verbally delayed. I remembering in the beginning me and my husband holding her hands down……..oh we have so much to learn. but the biggest thing i have learned is that each of these precious children…. are simply children behind the flapping…..with huge personalities, beautiful gifts and a whole lot of love. thankful to be able to call this one little lady mine. keep on writing and telling your son’s beautiful story.

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Tammy Graham March 17, 2013 at 10:58 am

I love this piece. I shared it on my Fumbling Thru Autism FB page…thank you so much for writing this!

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Jennifer March 28, 2013 at 1:31 am

Thank you so much for sharing this. As an adult on the spectrum who was forced to conform, called stupid by family not strangers and spent many years until recent in utter anxiety and torment trying to not let anyone see me do weird things that i was told were stupid. I recently went off all anxiety medication when i realized that the source of my anxiety was my enormous effort i had to put into looking like everyone else. The moment, at 40 when i realized that it was over and i would finally embrace ME, i was released from my person hell and the pain it caused me to “look” fine but so not be fine. Thank you thank you. Yes as an adult and now mother of two children with autism, i do not give a damn what others think and my child is not scarred by strangers. My child is mostly effected by what i think and feel. And I think and feel they are beautiful and i care more about their character than what they do with their hands. Neurotypical folks drink and drug over their anxieties hmmmm perhaps they need to learn to flap!!! ;) ((((hugs))))

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