- Difficulty making eye contact
- Difficulty dealing with changes in routine
- Hand-flapping and other repetitive behaviors
- Meltdowns or tantrums
According to findings from one recent study, these autistic symptoms and behaviors are primarily responsible for the social exclusion experienced by individuals with autism and their families. Given this data, many professionals direct their attention and interventions to changing the behaviors of autistic people. However, as a sociologist and a father, I have also learned to look at attitudinal barriers and social norms in the larger society. And at myself.
Hand-flapping is a good example of a repetitive behavior. We know that people with autism communicate in a variety of ways. Yet, many assume that because someone is non-verbal, they do not speak. Jimmy, like many autistic people, is verbal, but he also communicates by flapping his hands. He tends to do this when he feels passionate about something and gets excited. For instance, when we take him to church with us, he will start waving his hands and slapping them together when he hears a song that moves him.
Recently, I read a book titled Loud Hands. The book, written by over a dozen autistic adults from diverse backgrounds, defines loud hands as speaking and doing what comes naturally. It means not letting social norms stifle one’s behaviors.
When Jimmy flaps his hands in church, I used to be concerned about the noise and movements coming from my son. I was more concerned with Jimmy being a distraction, than with Jimmy praising the Lord and just being comfortable. When he started flapping, I would “tolerate” it for a while, but if it continued, I would gently rest my hands on his shoulder, letting him know that this behavior was not acceptable.
Loud Hands helped me realize that the issue is not Jimmy’s hands; rather, it is my hang-up with showing “proper” decorum in church, whatever that means. Indeed, our pastors (present and former), who are part of the book I am now writing about Jimmy and his family, told me how much they enjoy hearing from Jimmy during the service. Now, when Jimmy feels the music and expresses himself as only he can do, I smile and enjoy all that he brings to worship.
Yes, Jimmy has developed the ability to quiet his loud hands while he works at Walmart. But at home or church or on our long walks together, he enjoys communicating with his hands. And it sounds beautiful.
Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy. My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum. The voices and perspectives of my two daughters and wife as well as other friends of Jimmy are included throughout. It is a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time. The book will be published later this year.
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