Quiet Hands


When I was a little girl, they held my hands down in tacky glue while I cried.


I’m a lot bigger than them now. Walking down a hall to a meeting, my hand flies out to feel the texture on the wall as I pass by.

“Quiet hands,” I whisper.

My hand falls to my side.


When I was six years old, people who were much bigger than me with loud echoing voices held my hands down in textures that hurt worse than my broken wrist while I cried and begged and pleaded and screamed.


Explaining my reaction to this:

means I need to explain my history with this:

quiet hands



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.


Hands are by definition quiet, they can’t talk, and neither can half of these students…

(Behavior is communication.)

(Not being able to talk is not the same as not having anything to say.)

Things, slowly, start to make a lot more sense.


Roger needs a modified chair to help him sit. It came to the classroom fully equipped with straps to tie his hands down.

We threw the straps away. His old school district used them.

He was seven.


Terra can read my flapping better than my face. “You’ve got one for everything,” she says, and I wish everyone could look at my hands and see I need you to slow down or this is the best thing ever or can I please touch or I am so hungry I think my brain is trying to eat itself.

But if they see my hands, I’m not safe.

“They watch your hands,” my sister says, “and you might as well be flipping them off when all you’re saying is this menu feels nice.”


When we were in high school, my occasional, accidental flap gave my other autistic friend panic attacks.


I’ve been told I have a manual fixation. My hands are one of the few places on my body that I usually recognize as my own, can feel, and can occasionally control. I am fascinated by them. I could study them for hours. They’re beautiful in a way that makes me understand what beautiful means.

My hands know things the rest of me doesn’t. They type words, sentences, stories, worlds that I didn’t know I thought. They remember passwords and sequences I don’t even remember needing. They tell me what I think, what I know, what I remember. They don’t even always need a keyboard for that.

My hands are an automatic feedback loop, touching and feeling simultaneously. I think I understand the whole world when I rub my fingertips together.

When I’m brought to a new place, my fingers tap out the walls and tables and chairs and counters. They skim over the paper and make me laugh, they press against each other and remind me that I am real, they drum and produce sound to remind me of cause-and-effect. My fingers map out a world and then they make it real.

My hands are more me than I am.


But I’m to have quiet hands.


I know. I know.

Someone who doesn’t talk doesn’t need to be listened to.

I know.

Behavior isn’t communication. It’s something to be controlled.

I know.

Flapping your hands doesn’t do anything for you, so it does nothing for me.

I know.

I can control it.

I know.

If I could just suppress it, you wouldn’t have to do this.

I know.

They actually teach, in applied behavioral analysis, in special education teacher training, that the most important, the most basic, the most foundational thing is behavioral control. A kid’s education can’t begin until they’re “table ready.”

I know.

I need to silence my most reliable way of gathering, processing, and expressing information, I need to put more effort into controlling and deadening and reducing and removing myself second-by-second than you could ever even conceive, I need to have quiet hands, because until I move 97% of the way in your direction you can’t even see that’s there’s a 3% for you to move towards me.

I know.

I need to have quiet hands.

I know. I know.


There’s a boy in the supermarket, rocking back on his heels and flapping excitedly at a display. His mom hisses “quiet hands!” and looks around, embarrassed.

I catch his eye, and I can’t do it for myself, but my hands flutter at my sides when he’s looking.

(Flapping is the new terrorist-fist-bump.)


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…


Then I…



Julia Bascom blogs at Just Stimming.

Quiet Hands appears here by permission.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 10/27/11 in Autism, featured | 16 Comments | Read More

Comments (16)


  1. Jackie says:

    Thank you. Your words gave me deep understanding. My heart aches to even try to comprehend what you have gone through. I smile to know I understand a little better someone who flaps…

  2. Fran SARAVIA says:

    I’m always facinated by first hand accounts of these experiences. I struggle with the fine line between respecting my sons need to Stim and respecting that those stims many times create kaos and disturb other people and yes, stress us out. I thank you for your insight as I try to navigate this life affected by autism.

  3. Dear Julia Bascom at Just Stimming. I am in awe of your article Quiet Hands. It just gives me a glimpse into my son’s world from an early age of hand flapping, now at age 11 not so much. It boggles the mind to wonder what he is feeling and why he needs to stim. I hope it brings him joy & feeling good about himself. I can hear myself saying “quiet hands” for a very short time. I hang my head in shame thinking about this now. It’s a fine line living with Ian and respecting his stimming and hoping he gets out of it what he needs. I have learned not to be stressed out for him when he has to do this. So people stop starring and judging and just let these beautiful people be. Stim away!

  4. […] The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom Julia blogs at Just Stimming and LOVE-NOS. In this essay, from 2011, she infectiously captures the happiness that comes from her obsessions (Glee and Sodoku) and hand flapping. “All of these things autistic people are supposed to be ashamed of and stop doing? They are how we communicate our joy.”  Julia spearheads The Loud Hands Project, a transmedia publishing and creative effort by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Also check out her piece Quiet Hands. […]

  5. Sarah says:

    Thank you for your perspective. My two sons are autistic and typically I smile from ear to ear when they flap their hands. My older one who is 4 often does it when he is happy or excited. However he recently started doing it when he is in his own little world. My guess is that he is scripting in his head and something makes him happy enough to flap. Sometimes he does this at a dinner table, which would be fine except that when he flaps he also drops his jaw and his mouth is wide open. If he does this while eating, everyone gets to see what is in his mouth. Besides from that not being pleasant, I worry that he might choke or inhale his food as doesn’t seem to have very good control over his body is certain situations. I don’t know if I should do something, and if I should, I don’t know what. Any tips?

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