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.