Many kids with autism fidget or make repetitive movements. These movements range from hand flapping to chewing clothes to constantly moving. In public, these movements seem disconcerting to other people and can alienate your child. If you simply forbid a certain behavior, though, chances are that new ones will emerge. Instead, look for the cause of the fidgeting to find solutions.
Look for Clues
When it comes to children with autism, all behavior communicates something. Your child might fidget for several reasons. Although uncovering the reason won't completely eliminate fidgeting, it can help you make changes in the environment to lessen your child's discomfort.
Some children with autism fidget or flap their hands as they become overloaded with sensory stimuli. Watch your child and make observations about which environments and experiences tend to exacerbate fidgeting. Loud noises, crowds, strong smells and even scratchy clothes can increase your child's anxiety levels, which increases fidgeting. Eliminate the triggers whenever possible. For example, opt to go to the zoo during the afternoon rather than the morning, when it's more crowded. Let your child wear sweat pants and a T-shirt if that makes him more comfortable. Talk with your child ahead of time about an unavoidable, but potentially overwhelming, situation. Tell your child specifically what to expect and how to react. Say something like, "It's probably going to be noisy in the mall. We'll stay for 30 minutes and then we'll leave. You can hold my hand or listen to music on your headphones."
Another reason children with autism fidget is because they're bored. Few children enjoy sitting quietly while listening to a lecture, but for children with autism, this teaching style can be downright torturous. Encourage your child's teachers to incorporate visuals, music and opportunities for hands-on learning into lessons. Let your child play with a small fidget toy in her pocket. This could be as simple as a button sewn on fabric, a small Rubik's cube or a chain of paper clips. Stretch a thick rubber band between the legs of a chair for your child to gently bounce her feet on. Offer gum to quiet oral fidgeting, such as chewing on a shirt or hand.
For most children with autism, the world is a confusing and overwhelming place. From managing homework to negotiating social interactions, almost every aspect of daily life is potentially exhausting. Fidgeting is sometimes a sign that a child with autism is feeling overloaded by stress or frustration. A few approaches can help relieve this stress. First, kids with autism need more time alone to decompress than other kids. Allow your child time after school, for example, to be alone or to engage in repetitive interests and behaviors for a while. This is his way of regaining balance. If your child likes physical contact, offer a firm hug. Large motor activities can also help release stress and frustration. Jump on a trampoline, go for a walk or play at the park. Yoga, gymnastics and swimming are also excellent options for this needed release. Some kids with autism crave sensory experiences. Try finger painting with shaving cream or walking barefoot through the grass. Watch your child carefully, though. For some kids, these experiences cause more anxiety.