Arm Flapping in Toddlers

By Laura Agadoni
Arm flapping doesn't always signal autism.
Arm flapping doesn't always signal autism.

Part of your role as a mom involves worrying. You probably worried when you were pregnant and you’ll worry at each stage of your child’s life. Toddlers can be crazy and zany, so much so that it’s often difficult to determine whether you need to be concerned over a certain behavior. Arm flapping falls in this category.

Just One Behavior

Arm flapping is but one of many behaviors, albeit one of the stereotypical behaviors, that an autistic child might have. You might witness your child flapping his arms when he’s excited, and it could simply mean he’s excited. Just because your child flaps his arms doesn’t mean he has autism, which is a complex developmental disorder. But tell your pediatrician about it. He might ask whether your child displays other symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Besides arm flapping, other repetitive behaviors an autistic child might display are rocking, jumping, twirling and obsessively arranging objects. Your doctor might suggest you get a comprehensive developmental assessment for your toddler.

Developmental Assessment

The reason you’d want to get a developmental assessment during the toddler years is that if your child does have a developmental disorder, it doesn't help to wait for an assessment once he’s started preschool or kindergarten. If the assessment shows that your child has autism or another type of developmental difficulty, the earlier you start treatment the better. You increase the risk that the symptoms will worsen the longer you wait.

Assess the Arm Flapping

Arm flapping fits into the interaction skills category, one of three main categories used to diagnose autism. The other two are communication skills and behaviors. Arm flapping typically accompanies excitement. Say your toddler loves ladybugs. You’re walking outside with him and he spots a ladybug on a leaf. An interactive reaction would be if your child pointed to the ladybug and excitedly said, “Mommy look! Ladybug!” A toddler with a non-interactive reaction, which might be an indicator for autism, might be just as excited to see the ladybug but instead might start flapping his arms. He’s not interested in sharing his excitement with you.

About Autism

Autism is typically a lifelong condition, but a child will likely benefit from therapy and intervention. Goals are to reduce symptoms and increase functioning skills. Although autistic children often don’t seem attached to their parents, research shows they are, according to the website Autism Speaks. It’s just that the social world, to an autistic child, might not make sense. So, autistic children often express their attachment to people in their own ways.

About the Author

Laura Agadoni has been writing professionally since 1983. Her feature stories on area businesses, human interest and health and fitness appear in her local newspaper. She has also written and edited for a grassroots outreach effort and has been published in "Clean Eating" magazine and in "Dimensions" magazine, a CUNA Mutual publication. Agadoni has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University-Fullerton.