On Stimming and why “quiet hands”ing an Autistic person is wrong

Trigger warnings for ableism, abusive therapy, prevention of communication, and self injurious behavior (at the very end)

I will never understand how people can justify the use of “quiet hands”. If you are unaware of what this phrase means, or of the implications for autistic people, you need to read Quiet Hands by Julia Bascom.

When a parent, sibling, educator, therapist, medical professional, etc justifies the use of quiet hands, it baffles me. Do they understand what stimming is? Do they realize that my hands are the key to helping me see the world? Or do they just see my movements as separate from me, as a source of embarrassment for them? I tend to think it’s the latter, that it’s because stimming draws unwanted attention that people want to quiet my hands in the first place. They don’t understand the point of stimming, or I think (hope) they wouldn’t try and prevent it.

I could potentially go on and on about how my hands help me connect to a world that is often baffling to me, but I prefer to keep this explanation short and simple. Stimming is communication. Did you get that? Let me say it again, until it sinks in. Stimming is communication.

I recall reading, around the time I began to learn ASL, about D/deaf individuals who were forced into becoming oral, who weren’t allowed to use sign language. I would say ASL rather than sign language, but I’m not all that certain that the practice was US-centric. I recall being horrified, but not being surprised, because boy, did that sound familiar.

I was lucky (?) enough to have not received my autism diagnosis in childhood. I was 30 when the diagnosis was confirmed (though a professional suggested it at age 28). This meant that like many of my peers, I was treated as though any issue I had, any difficulties were a result of laziness or stubborness, not because the world was difficult to live in. I was lucky to avoid ABA and most other therapy, but that didn’t save me from well-meaning teachers and relatives who stilled my fingers, my legs, my body, sometimes even physically restraining me during a meltdown (though they thought of them as “tantrums”). These weren’t bad people. I won’t excuse their behavior, but there was far less known about autism at the time, and I doubt the treatment I received would have changed if I had been diagnosed at age 4, 9, 16, whatever. It probably would have been worse. They focused more on me when they felt I was drawing too much attention – to them, to myself.

I don’t recall being publicly shamed for stimming until I was a teenager. It was on a road trip with my high school choral group, and we had just performed for a church service (did I mention we were a private Christian school?). Afterward, we were seated onstage. I couldn’t look at the minister because of the overhead lights, so I focused on my fingers. I rocked and flapped a bit. I didn’t even notice I was doing it until afterward, when my choral director pulled me aside and scolded me, telling me I was “disrespectful” and “an embarrassment” to my school. I prayed that the ground would swallow me up, and I spent the night in my hotel room crying and feeling ashamed. And for what? For finding a way to deal with my overstimulation? For failing to live up to NT standards?

So this is what happens when you “quiet hands” us. It’s the equivalent to duct taping an NT person’s mouth shut or preventing a nonspeaking D/deaf person from signing. You are taking away our natural language. You make interacting with the world that much harder.

Sincere thank you to Brenda Rothman @ Mama Be Good for the inspiration to write this.

Final note: Please understand that this is not talking about self injurious behavior and redirecting that. I used to repeatedly bang my head against the wall until I discovered shaking it rapidly side to side worked just as well, providing the same effect. Investigate the cause of SIB and work to redirect to keep your kids safe. But don’t hold them down.

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23 thoughts on “On Stimming and why “quiet hands”ing an Autistic person is wrong

  1. Oralism was pretty much an international standard in education for the hard of hearing during the latter half of the 19th century, up ’til about 1970. In Europe this was because of the Milan congress, 1880, on the education for the deaf, during which it was decided that “sign language is a primitive form of communication and should be abolished, and oralism is to be encouraged at every point during the education”. It should be noted that deaf or HoH teachers didn’t have a right to vote at the congress.

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    1. This is interesting and pertinent information. Thank you for sharing!

      It is sad and yet somewhat unsurprising that HoH/d/Deaf individuals were also spoken over, as well. It seems to be a common thread when it comes to any oppressed group, that they have someone with power speaking for them and over them.

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      1. I think there is a certain similarity in the history of “sign language is a primitve form of communication” and it’s-for-their-own-good-if-they-learn-to-talk-and-read-lips-so-no-one-ever-knows-they-can’t-hear (even if it means they’ll never really manage to communicate in an efficient manner [because lip redaing is HARD] and everyone -still- knows that something is up, because no matter the amount of practice, there -will- be deviations from the norm in how a HoH/D/deaf person talks) as a matter of course, to how it is today in autism discourse. You shouldn’t stim, because if you do, you are visibly autistic, and that is Not Good. Or something. And stimming is an unacceptable behaviour and can’t possibly have a point or be a means of communication, now can it? It’s a primitive form of communication that should be abolished, ne?
        (I don’t understand how “autism experts” can’t know that behaviour is communication. Maybe it’s the part where they think that autism is mainly a social functioning difficulty? Allistics think you are weird, so you should stop being weird?) (And, in parallell with the oralism, no matter how hard one tries to pass for allistic, one is -still- weird, odd, and something is different.)

        I have -feelings- about autism therapy that focuses on making the Autistic person pass for allistic instead of providing coping mechanisms.
        Sorry, rant over.

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    2. My recollection is probably imperfect, but I believe that the US was the only country that even had any deaf delegates at the Milan congress, so it’s not just that deaf/HoH teachers couldn’t vote (I don’t remember their being actively prohibited, but maybe I just remember wrong, see above). For the most part they weren’t even THERE. Because, gosh, why have deaf people speaking for ourselves at a conference deciding the future fates of thousands of other deaf people then still in school? /sarcasm mode = off.

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  2. I completely agree with you on this, my husband has to fiddle with his hands and things in his hands all the time, his parents tried to “break” him of this “bad habit” as they called it, but it calms him down. I do have a question about the meltdownsthough . I realize that you are not supposed to hold someone down, obviously. But What do you do? My husband has high functioning aspergers, and I am studying special education (want to teach autistic children), and I have always wondered what the correct behavior is for us (NP’s) in this case? should we walk out of the room? Stand there quietly and wait till it passes? I realize that the meltdowns are a show of complete frustration, and usually a misunderstanding of both parties involved. I realize that they never last longer than 15-20 mins. But what reaction are we supposed to have? Also what do you do when there is the threat or the actual “running away” action?

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    1. Re: meltdowns, I say keeping them safe is the first priority. If you are in an area where they can run away and be in actual physical danger, then obviously, that needs to be handled in the best way possible. Is running into traffic a concern? Then gently redirect them to a safer area. I tend to melt down in enclosed spaces and while I will run off, even now as an adult, it’s to a quiet area, away from other people. I don’t mind people nearby, but I don’t want them touching me, and I don’t want them in the same room sometimes. For the most part, it’s embarrassing to have someone witness all of a meltdown, but having someone nearby is helpful.

      Basically, observe from a distance, and intervene if the situation becomes dangerous. There’s a way to gently redirect without stopping their movement.

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      1. That’s pretty much what my boyfriend does when I melt down: he stops talking and just waits for the storm to pass. Because he is so understanding and non-judgmental, I find his silent presence soothing and it helps me to get under control sooner. But I am deeply embarassed if an outsider sees me having a meltdown and have stopped going to places, like favorite restaurants, after having a meltdown there because I was too embarassed to return.

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      2. It’s what I do for my kids, though they are far more clingy than I am, and actually like to be held. It’s what I want people to do for me. There are a select few who have seen me in the midst of a meltdown. I was embarrassed for a long time about one of my college roommates seeing me have a meltdown (became nonverbal in the same week I was to present for my Oral Interpretation of Literature class, and naturally, it was the tipping point), but she amazingly didn’t act any differently toward me. She didn’t try and touch me or try and reason with me. She was just there.

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    2. Not to jump in all frustrated in a blog that isnt even mine but

      a) that’s not even what this post is about and
      b) this is mightily close to the disrespect line for many people. Depending on a person’s mood, maybe even over.

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      1. I did actually have to rewrite my answer to the aforementioned comment about five times, because yes, it is pretty far off the point and luckily, I was in a very good frame of mind when said comment was posted. Otherwise, it would have not been as kindly worded as it was.

        (Sorry for taking so long to approve your comment; I have been internetless since about 11am)

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  3. I used to get the cane everytime I was caught stimming openly. I used to get told I had lazy feet, and had to run laps everytime my P.E. teacher caught me walking with my toes pointing inwards.
    Even if I was walking down the halls and he caught me, I’d get detention and that detention was to run 2x800mtr laps around the field.

    Fortunately my parents were both deaf so I got away with a lot of hand waving, but I’d get caned for wringing my hands, I started biting my nail in frustration where I would normally wring hands.
    I no longer wring my hands very often, I bite my nails instead.

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  4. I hated being restrained. I was injured repeatedly by that practice and that and being physically disciplined resulted in me being afraid of being touched for a long time. I still have a massive phobia over being trapped. I did head banging, too, but mine was a reaction to being put in time out. Which was, to me, a rejection by everyone else for being unable to pretend I didn’t have ADHD and just sit down, shut up and not move, tic or make noises. I abhor silence–it causes me physical pain. Drumming/tapping helped my brain focus on the subject at hand. Impact sensations are pleasant to me in certain situations.

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  5. “This meant that like many of my peers, I was treated as though any issue I had, any difficulties were a result of laziness or stubborness, not because the world was difficult to live in.”

    I have to laugh if I don’t want to cry at this. I WAS diagnosed as a kid. At three, in fact. And all my difficulties were still treated as laziness or stubbornness. -.-

    To the larger point of the post, I didn’t start stimming until roughly a year ago, about the time that I fully accepted being autistic. It started due to the same increasing stress that made me aware of my autism through the ways in which I was just unable to handle what was happening. I think that, at the time, I so badly needed people to understand my need for help that I just couldn’t stop myself from scratching my elbow, shaking my leg, tapping my heels, and my whole body from trembling. I couldn’t express what I needed, so my body was constantly trying to get attention.

    This is honestly the first time I’ve read “stimming is communication”. I had been thinking of stimming as just a nervous response, though not always a bad one. As in, I flap in joy but thought that was just because my nerves couldn’t handle my emotions.

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  6. Both of my children are autistic to varying degrees. This is very insightful. My oldest was diagnosed at age 2 but no one would give me any help with him until age 3 because that was when they started “School Readiness” programs. He understood nothing of what we said, couldn’t understand punishments because he never knew what we wanted or why he was punished. Therapy was wonderful, especially sensory therapy and speech. He wanted so much to communicate with us, and I was desperate to have him able to. I got a CD from the Son Rise program, couldn’t afford to attend a program but gleaned what I could from it. I was watching (he was 3) and he came into the room and told me why one little boy was acting like he was. So matter of fact, he understood something most others didn’t. That CD helped me figure out how to give him safe zones where he couldn’t get hurt or break anything (he was very self destructive and couldn’t seem to feel pain and would often have gashes that bled like crazy). I remember one day after getting his safe room done I sat down with him, he was playing with cars, throwing them one after another. I copied him for a while and he stopped and looked at me for the first time, and said “I love you” and went back to playing. What a moment, all because I was trying to listen to him. He still frustrates a lot of people because you can’t see autism and ducking under tables or cringing at touch or sound isn’t what most are used to, but he is so amazing at 11 years old if people take the time to get to know him. I hope he might read your blog, I think it would help him cope with some of the oddities of us “non-autistics” and help to know that others think more like he does and have the same frustrations. Our family was very blessed with a worker we got one year, she was kept on to work with our son special for a few years. She was older and wise and loves him, and they did things that opened the world up and made it lovely for him, like smelling candles and sitting in massage chairs, playing Skippo and generally finding amazing ways to redirect the self abusive behaviors and replacing them with things that would be okay. Gah.. I’m rambling. I just want to say thank you for this post and for sharing.

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