If the Van Is a Rockin’… Ethan’s Just Stimming … or Slapping Around Idaho

Ethan rocks. He rocks hard.

Many of the people who meet Ethan or spend only a small amount of time with him are surprised when they hear of his problems. They are often taken aback by the revelation of his ASD diagnosis. He rarely shows any tics or outbursts. He can hold a very intelligent conversation with someone for an extended time. He makes eye contact. He is OK touching someone, so shaking hands is not a problem for him. He does not act out in these brief visits. Ethan can hold it together. This is one of the many ways in which I admire him. I know how hard it is for him to do all of these things. I can always see them, but I’ve been reading his body language for thirteen years now.

I remember taking Ethan to a psychologist. It was his first visit with someone who works with Autistic children. Melanie and I went in first and spent quite a bit of time relaying Ethan’s history, his successes, and his struggles. There were roughly five minutes left when we came out and sent Ethan in. When the doctor returned with Ethan, we asked if he saw anything. He went on to list five or six things he noticed in less than five minutes.

Ethan flaps. He flaps hard.

As an infant Ethan rotated his wrists and ankles often. I called him a motorcycle rider. The frequency and the intensity of this did give me cause to worry. I mentioned in another post that I repeatedly asked Ethan’s pediatrician(s) about it. My favorite phrase will always be, “He will grow out of it.” I’ll be sure to mention this to Ethan the next time I talk with him. When he was five, we visited a pediatric neurologist; she stated these were stereotypies. She assured us that he would grow out of it.

A stereotypy (/ˈstɛriː.ɵtaɪpi/, “STAIR-ee-oh-TEYE-pee”) is a repetitive or ritualistic movement, posture, or utterance. Stereotypies may be simple movements such as body rocking, or complex, such as self-caressing, crossing and uncrossing of legs, and marching in place.

A History of Flapping

I will try to relay these in order, but truly, it’s very difficult to remember in which order these came.

  1. Flapping his hands: Ethan continues to flap his hands even today. Below is an example of Ethan’s hand flapping. He is watching Home Alone, and as you will see, quite enjoying it. This clip is actual speed.

    (Ethan was taken to the hospital the next night for suicidal threats. His medication had been changed 1 week prior.)
  2. Flapping a blade of grass: The summer prior to Ethan’s Kindergarten year while at the beach, Ethan began to pick long pieces of beachgrass and flap it. This continued through his Kindergarten year of school where he would pick a long blade of grass and flap it during recess/lunch or any outside free time.
  3. Flapping a piece of paper: Ugh. I’m not sure exactly when paper flapping began, but it was not a welcome addition to the house. One piece of paper would be torn into a strip roughly an inch or two in width. He would then painstakingly tear the paper into an elongated Idaho. He flapped it while holding the south side of Idaho. Everything else was strewn about the house, but Ethan had his own private Idaho(s).


    The original strip


    The final “flapper”

  4. Flapping a pamphlet: Ethan graduated from paper to a trifold pamphlet, but it had to be the right pamphlet. He would pick one up, give it a flap and give it a yea or nay vote. At my school we had pamphlets in both English and Spanish. The pamphlets were exactly the same except for the ink color. He would only accept one of them. I even did a blind test on that one. He knows what he needs. I have tried to get him to show or to explain to me the process, but it is entirely a sensory experience for him. The problem with the pamphlet was the incredible abuse of someone’s wasted money. Sure, no one was ever going to look at most of the pamphlets we picked up for him, but I told Melanie that it made me uncomfortable and even discussed having my own printed for Ethan’s use. Luckily he moved on, but the South Carolina Welcome Center probably found themselves down a few pamphlets when we traveled with Ethan to and from Whetstone Academy.
  5. Flapping laminated paper: Unfortunately at my school, we have a laminating machine that is housed in my media center. This thing is a toxic nightmare, but what a tragedy if your classroom door sign wrinkles or falls off the door. I have tried to explain that it was cheaper to print multiple copies than to use the laminator. Environment? I’ll let them know when they autopsy me and find my lungs nicely laminated. Wow, that was a tangent. So, when someone runs the laminator there is often a woeful waste of plastic. It was easy to stick a strip of paper in one of the honking hole between two index cards.  Luckily this phase didn’t last long.
  6. Flapping a folded piece of duct tape: Duct tape can fix anything. It didn’t last long for Ethan.
  7. Flapping a piece of paper: For now, Ethan has returned to paper. It’s roughly 1/4 of a sheet of paper folded into a strip about the width of the one above. This time no Idaho.

Ethan can rock without flapping. Ethan cannot flap without rocking. When he was younger he would stand in our kitchen with his back, really his butt, against the wall, his feet forward while rocking from the waist. He would at times rock at nearly a 90º angle. We could here him muttering elaborate stories under his breath. If we asked him what he was doing, he would say that he was telling himself stories. I only wish that I had access to those inner workings. He no longer seems to be having this internal story telling.

When Ethan is most excited, I cannot help being drawn into that feeling.  His body rocks, his arms and hands flap and he is working that paper. He does this thing with his nose as well. His excitement and happiness literally shakes his body. Sometimes, however, the rocking and flapping don’t indicate excitement or happiness. These behaviors increase with anxiety. Flapping tends to fade away when he’s sad. While Ethan is not always able to express his emotions correctly, his body language can be learned and interpreted. It’s important to read the situation before stepping on a mine.

So, the next time you are stopped at a stoplight or in a parking lot and the car next to you is rocking, it might just be Ethan stimming.

Self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, but most prevalent in people with autistic spectrum disorders.

I have consistently supported Ethan’s rocking and flapping as a coping device. I, however, have told him that people will make fun of him. And people have. And he continues to rock and flap, and I’m OK with that.


One thought on “If the Van Is a Rockin’… Ethan’s Just Stimming … or Slapping Around Idaho

  1. Your comment about him not being always being able to his emotions correctly touches me. My 24 year old son with PDD-NOS was arrested two years ago. If law enforcement would have more education on mental illness and autism, I think this might have been prevented for my son. His reaction was over the top and it escalated to the point that my son was so scared he tried to run away from the police into a lake…he was not trying to harm himself or anyone else, he was scared.


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