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An Open Letter to the People Staring at My Autistic Child

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My daughter with autism keeps flapping her arms. How do I make her stop? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Brooke Herbert, published writer, on Quora:

"My daughter with autism keeps flapping her arms. How do I make her stop?"

You don't! My son has autism. The hand flapping is a stim. To children with autism, it is a way for them to escape and focus when sensory input is overwhelming, or if there is a lack of sensory input it allows the child to seek input. Chances are, your daughter does not care if people are staring at her. I know my son certainly doesn't. The hard part is the emotions you feel with regards to how other people perceive your daughter's behavior. I totally understand that feeling because I've been there. I used to try to stop it, too. It just resulted in my son's frustration and would draw more looks from others, opening him up to further criticism. I would leave a public place exasperated and sometimes in tears.

Recently, I have let him stim when he needs to. Some days he stims a lot, and other days not at all. Some days I quietly watch him, wondering what is going on in this secret world of his, wishing he could share it with me. Sometimes I ask him questions about it when he's flapping his hands and playing with the light that dances through the windows. He's usually smiling when this happens, and he sometimes makes repeated sounds that sound joyful; once in a while he will shoot me a little knowing smile and continue the stim. I feel almost jealous that I can't be in on his little secret.

My son is very smart. He is observant, and it sometimes surprises me what he pays attention to when he is stimming and I don't think he's listening. Your daughter is likely listening, so don't forget that.

At the end of the day, this is a behavior that seems very necessary to him. It's a mechanism that helps him make sense of his world, and it is enjoyable to him. When "typical" people are overwhelmed, we may eat, drink, smoke, or exercise, sometimes to excess, to deal when things are overwhelming. For children like ours, they find everyday input and interactions overwhelming at times because it comes all at once. The stim is a nice release for them.

Once you get your head in a place where you stop caring what others think, you can really see the beauty in it. It's not easy; it took me years, and I still have days where it's overwhelming, but I try to remind myself that he's just trying to make sense of his world. I sit back, and I watch, and I wonder. I take a deep breath, just go with it, and just love him.

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