The Connection Between Stuttering & Hand Flapping

Mother and her child playing

Hand flapping and stuttering are two manifestations that children with autism spectrum disorders may display. However, it’s important to note that these behaviors are not exclusive to autistic children. Children with autism spectrum disorder can have difficulty with various forms of communication and social interaction. It’s also common that they will show lapses in concentration, or show extreme focus to the detriment of all else. Understanding the connection between stuttering and hand flapping in children with autism spectrum disorder can help parents and caregivers engage with their children.

Stuttering and the flapping of hands are behaviors often provoked by unmet sensory needs. Besides stuttering, children with autism spectrum disorder often exhibit other variations of speech including repetitions of phrases and revisions of thought. When stuttering and hand flapping are present, it’s important to differentiate whether the problem is motor or language based, and then determine a treatment plan accordingly.

Once a doctor makes a diagnosis, you can implement an effective treatment plan. This plan will vary depending on whether a speech-language pathologist's determination is that the hand flapping and stuttering has a motor-based cause or a language based cause. With proper support from parents and the child’s extended social community, children who exhibit these behaviors can often overcome them.

What Is Hand Flapping?

Hand flapping and other self-stimulatory behaviors are often displayed by children with autism spectrum disorder over unmet sensory needs. These manifestations could mean that the child is not getting the sensory input he or she needs or that they are having difficulty processing the signals they are receiving. Hand flapping can manifest in a variety of ways that can escalate to where the behaviors become a danger to the child and others.

Hand Flapping in Adults

Hand flapping is not exclusive to children with autism spectrum disorder. Adults, too, can manifest similar behaviors if they have to sit still for an extended period, such as on an airplane or in a meeting. With time, individuals learn to express their hand flapping in a less disruptive, socially acceptable way.

These tactics allow adults to manage their own impulses or frustrations with unmet sensory needs. By understanding how all individuals, even those not diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, engage in a subdued form of hand flapping, it's easier to comprehend the needs of a child and help him or her successfully engage a treatment plan. Most adults will recognize the following list as behaviors they have engaged in themselves:

  • Shaking foot: This behavior directs physical energy to a foot which bounces underneath the desk and out of view of the others present at the meeting or gathering
  • Doodling: Energy spent silently scrawling on a piece of paper
  • Gum chewing: As long as the individual doesn’t snap the gum, gum chewing is a great way to provide distracted focus
  • Fidget spinners: The individual can surreptitiously spin a fidget spinner out of the sight of other people at the gathering
  • Controlled Hand Flapping

    By practicing ways to direct a physical manifestation of frustration or confusion over sensory input, children with autism spectrum disorder can maintain group focus. This allows them to avoid distractions and remain on task in a work or classroom setting. These tactics can also create a release valve for the pent up frustration that leads to more disruptive hand flapping which can distract other children. If this behavior goes unchecked, it may become increasingly violent to where it poses a threat to the child or any other nearby children that may be present.

    What Is a Stutter?

    A stutter in a child with autism spectrum disorder is like the stutter in any other individual and is most easily described as a repetition in the first consonant of a word. The child can become stuck on a sound or word, which exacerbates other feelings of sensory frustration. If a child is stuttering, it’s important to treat him or her with the same kindness and respect you would show any other child.

    mother teaching her son

    Tips For Parents With Stuttering Children

    Communication skills are vital for any child’s development, and there are many tactics which can minimize stuttering which also may instigate the flapping of a hand. Above all, the child needs patience, encouragement, support and acceptance.

    •     Do not rush the child
    •     Be  expressive with your face and body to show you are engaged and listening
    •     Practice activities that show the whole family is engaged in the process


    The Connection Between Stuttering and Hand Flapping

    A child with autism spectrum disorder may exhibit a language delay, and a stuttering issue may not present itself until the child goes to school. Typically, a speech-language pathologist would diagnose stuttering. Stuttering in a child with autism spectrum disorder can arise from the same sensory input frustrations that lead to hand flapping, or it can be rooted in other causes.

    There are many ways that both the flapping of hands and stuttering can be treated, and sometimes, treating one issue will concurrently calmly influence the other. The aim is to create a treatment plan of effective approaches that are meaningful and of interest to the child. Meaningful approaches are especially effective as the child will remember and engage them outside therapy sessions.

    Traditional Stuttering Tools

  •     Story webs and visual mapping programs
  •     Emphasis on increased pausing during speech
  •     Teach the child when and where to breathe while speaking
  •     Use visual aids when discussing speech
  •     Make the speech sessions fun and engaging
  • If Language Deficit is Not the Cause of Stuttering

    A speech-language pathologist may conclude that the child with autism spectrum disorder does not have a developmental issue with word finding or narrative language. If no other accompanying language deficits are present, then tactics used to diminish the flapping of hands may also prove to be effective in eliminating any latent stuttering that might be present.

    Hand flapping and other self-stimulating behaviors can become exaggerated to where the child might be at the risk of causing personal harm to himself or others. These extreme behaviors might include biting, scratching, or hitting objects, people, or children with great force. To reduce the need the child feels to flap his or her hands, you can try to have them adopt replacement behaviors.

    Replacement Behaviors for Hand Flapping

    As we mentioned earlier, most adults have learned to redirect the nervous energy they feel in work or social settings requiring long periods of limited physical activity. You can also teach children with autism spectrum disorder similar tactics which allow them to channel the frustration they feel from unmet sensory needs into more socially appropriate manifestations, such as:

    •     Replace biting with gum chewing
    •     Replacing rocking back and forth, with dancing or swaying side to side
    •     Replace clapping with squeezing hands together

    Other Manifestations

    It is impractical to expect a child to adopt the subtle redirections of hand flapping impulses that adults use without extended practice. Caregivers must temper their expectations and also consider a wider list of potential causes for the child’s behaviors. The greatest successes are achieved by setting reasonable goals and focusing on any improvement, no matter how minimal.

    • Allow the child movement breaks: If they have been sitting too long, let them get up and move around
    • Allow the child to sit on a pillow on the floor rather than a chair or desk
    • Offer a fidget toy

    Basic Need Manifestations

    The self stimulation that hand flapping addresses can take many forms. It’s important that each child gets evaluated individually so caregivers can implement a specific treatment plan for that child. It’s also important to be mindful of basic needs such as hunger and sleep which can exacerbate the behavior.

    •     If the child is tired, allow a short nap when possible
    •     If the child is hungry, allow a snack
    •     Take advantage of every opportunity to practice self-calming exercises



    Children with autism spectrum disorder often manifest self stimulation in the form of hand flapping, and there have been many cases of children with autism spectrum disorder who stutter. Communication is vital for social integration and the development of fundamental relationships. Because of the importance of communication, caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder should examine the links between the flapping of hands and stuttering.

    baby boy playing

    It is important for each child with autism spectrum disorder who manifests a stutter to receive treatment from a speech-language pathologist. The purpose of seeing a speech-language pathologist is to determine whether the stutter is caused by accompanying language deficits or has another source. Specific treatment plans are available if the stutter results from difficulties in speech production or organization of language.

    When the stutter is a manifestation of frustration created by unmet sensory needs, the tactics used to diminish or redirect the energy which causes someone to flap his or her hands may also positively influence reducing the child’s stutter. Here, commonly used methods of teaching the child socially acceptable redirection can have a measurable, beneficial effect.

    It is vital for the success of any treatment plan that the parent treat a child with autism spectrum disorder with the same love and respect they would show any other child. It is also important for the parent to be firm about establishing a model of correct behavior rather than changing their behavior to accommodate the abnormal behavior of their child.

    Effective tactics and treatment exist for children with autism spectrum disorder whether they flap their hands, develop a stutter, or both. Treatments have a holistic effect and create an overall atmosphere of wellness that allows the child the best environment of developmental and personal growth and fulfillment.

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