Emily Shamash, Ed.D.
Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA
Many teachers and parents use the term "quiet hands” with children with ASD to teach them to refrain from flapping their hands or engaging in other self-stimulatory behavior with their hands. We would like to encourage readers to rethink that approach.
From our perspective, there are a host of issues with using the "quiet hands" phrase. First, some kids may flap their hands because they are excited about something. Who are we to suggest that this is an inappropriate way for them to show their excitement? Some kids flap their hands or rock back and forth because their bodies need movement in order for them to feel “centered.” As long as the movement is not preventing them from engaging in learning or social activities and it is not preventing others from engaging, then we should probably allow them the freedom to regulate themselves. If we don’t, we often end up playing a game of whack-a-mole: You stop the hand flapping and something else (that may be much more inappropriate or disruptive) will pop up to replace the need for self-regulation.
In some cases, the function of hand flapping may not be to show excitement or for self-regulation due to movement needs, it may be to communicate another function such as lack of engagement, inability to engage in a task because it is too difficult, disinterest, frustration, anxiety, etc. In these instances we need to conduct a functional behavior assessment (formally or informally) to determine the function of the hand flapping so that we can: 1) Make any changes to the environment, adult behavior, or peer behavior to prevent the need for hand flapping 2) Teach more appropriate and effective replacement behaviors that serve the same function.
Telling students to have “quiet hands” is a very surface level solution to what some consider a problem. It is similar to telling students to stay in their seats throughout a lesson. Instead, we need to look at their engagement level in the lesson and/or what purpose leaving their seat may serve. This way we can focus on increasing engagement which would likely result in children staying in their seats. If we determine that a child is leaving his/her seat to get attention from another adult, we then need to ensure that adult refrains from giving the child attention for out of seat behavior and increases attention and positive reinforcement for in seat behavior.
Generally speaking, we should not focus on behavior reduction. Instead, we need to first determine if the behavior is enough of a problem to warrant an intervention. If so, then we need to determine the function for the behavior, make necessary changes to the environment and the behavior of others to potentially prevent the behavior from occurring, and teach replacement behaviors that serve the same function in a more desirable way.