Quiet Hands

Frowning child sitting at a school desk with feet floor and floor and hands being set down on the desk

Abuse and silencing is a constant, pervasive theme in the lives of autistic people, and for many people it is best expressed by that old, familiar phrase from special education: quiet hands!

Loud hands means resisting. Loud Hands means speaking, however we do, anyway—and doing so in a way that can be very obviously Autistic. It means finding ways to talk and think about ourselves on our own terms.

There is room for all of us to play our part. And whatever we do, however we do it, we can do it with ‘loud hands’ and ‘loud voices,’ and loud whatever else we need, in whatever way that works for us individually or collectively. Let us be our real autistic selves, loud and proud, and show the world what we truly are.

Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking (p. 8, 125). Autistic Self Advocacy Network

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.

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.

On Stimming and why “quiet hands”ing an Autistic person is wrong

In a classroom of language-impaired kids, the most common phrase is a metaphor.

“Quiet hands!”

A student pushes at a piece of paper, flaps their hands, stacks their fingers against their palm, pokes at a pencil, rubs their palms through their hair. It’s silent, until:

“Quiet hands!”

I’ve yet to meet a student who didn’t instinctively know to pull back and put their hands in their lap at this order. Thanks to applied behavioral analysis, each student learned this phrase in preschool at the latest, hands slapped down and held to a table or at their sides for a count of three until they learned to restrain themselves at the words.

The literal meaning of the words is irrelevant when you’re being abused.

When I was a little girl, I was autistic. And when you’re autistic, it’s not abuse. It’s therapy.

Quiet Hands | Just Stimming…

Autistic adults highlighted the importance of stimming as an adaptive mechanism that helps them to soothe or communicate intense emotions or thoughts and thus objected to treatment that aims to eliminate the behaviour.

Furthermore, more recent theories have suggested that stimming may provide familiar and reliable self-generated feedback in response to difficulties with unpredictable, overwhelming and novel circumstances (e.g. Lawson, Rees, & Friston, 2014; Pellicano & Burr, 2012). As such, stimming may provide not only relief from excessive sensory stimulation, but also emotional excitation such as anxiety (Leekam, Prior, & Uljarevic, 2011). Consistent with these suggestions, autistic adults report that stimming provides a soothing rhythm that helps them cope with distorted or overstimulating perception and resultant distress (Davidson, 2010) and can help manage uncertainty and anxiety (e.g. Joyce, Honey, Leekam, Barrett, & Rodgers, 2017).

Autistic people have become increasingly mobilised and vocal in defence of stimming. Autism rights or neurodiversity activists believe that stims may serve as coping mechanisms, thus opposing attempts to eliminate non-injurious forms of stimming (e.g. Orsini & Smith, 2010). They decry practices such as ‘quiet hands’ (which teaches the suppression of hand flapping), instead using ‘loud hands’ as a metaphor both for using such non-verbal behaviour to communicate and for cultural resistance more broadly (Bascom, 2012). In addition, autistic scholar-activists denounce attempts to reduce their bodily autonomy (Nolan & McBride, 2015; Richter, 2017) and declarations of their stimming as unacceptable or as necessarily involuntary (Yergeau, 2016).

‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming – Steven K Kapp, Robyn Steward, Laura Crane, Daisy Elliott, Chris Elphick, Elizabeth Pellicano, Ginny Russell, 2019

Let me be extremely fucking clear: if you grab my hands, if you grab the hands of a developmentally disabled person, if you teach quiet hands, if you work on eliminating “autistic symptoms” and “self-stimulatory behaviors,” if you take away our voice, if you…

if you…

if you…

Quiet Hands | Just Stimming…

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they