Flapping, Spinning, Waving, Whirling: The Child With Irregular Motor Behavior

Sometimes children with special needs will display peculiar behaviors with their body parts. They might flap their hands, wave their arms, spin in circles, or bounce. They might fiddle with a string constantly, or jump up and down repetitively. Interestingly enough, this is not necessarily caused by autism, brain damage, or mental retardation. These are motor processing problems where the child has only limited control of what his body is doing. They might be symptoms of a larger disorder, like autism, but they can also appear in children who are neuro-typical.

What causes these irregular body movements?

In The Child With Special Needs, a book by Stanley I. Greenspan M.D. and Serena Wieder, Ph.D., the authors compare these involuntary movements to a nerve in the eye that twitches under stress. If you’ve ever felt that strange pulsing feeling near your eye, you can relate in a small way to what these children are experiencing. The movements could also be compared to that of an infant, who excitedly kicks his legs and flails his arms when he sees someone approach. His movements are not purposeful, but a natural response to his enthusiasm.

An infant or toddler who displays involuntary motor behaviors might be considered cute or amusing. But an older child who is flapping his hands oddly, or flailing his arms or legs, can make others feel uncomfortable. And it can be particularly alarming for parents to watch. “Why is my child doing…that? It looks so strange.”

Greenspan and Wieder, in their book, discuss how a twitching nerve in the eye can become worse when more attention is paid to it. Yet if the person whose nerve is twitching uses the muscles in his face purposefully, like by smiling, the twitching tends to stop. This same concept can be used to help children retrain their involuntary motions.

Redirect the motions from unintentional to intentional.

What parents can do is engage the child in a purposeful activity where his motor behaviors can become intentional. For example, if your child wiggles his fingers in front of his eyes, you could mimic him and say, “Peek-a-boo, I see you,” as you peek through your fingers. Gently take his fingers and manipulate them into “peek-a-boo,” saying, “Can you see me now?”

If your child spins, you could ask, “Can I play?” and then sing “Ring around the rosie,” even grasping her hands to join in the spinning. If your child jumps, you could say, “I can jump higher!” and begin jumping with him. If your child closes doors repeatedly, you could make a funny face on the other side that changes with each newly opened door.

It might seem silly at first, but the idea is that you are trying to bring your child out from his state of unconscious motor movements, into purposeful activity (even play is purposeful). This will help him regain a sense of order and control.

One of my son Kyle’s irregular motor behaviors was clapping. Now, clapping is not necessarily a bizarre behavior, but he often did it without purpose, almost giggling to himself, and would stoop over his clapped hands, drawing them into his chest. One simple thing that I and his siblings did was to say, “Yeah! Hurray!” and then, “Why are you clapping Kyle?” This caused Kyle to think about what he was doing, and give it meaning. He occasionally didn’t know how to respond (because he probably didn’t exactly know why he was doing it) so I would give him the words. “Say, I’m SO happy Mom! I love thinking about that movie!” And he would repeat it back to me, smiling.

Seek help from a physical therapist.

Using a physical therapist to help your child with strength and coordination can also be beneficial. Most children in special education will have access to a physical therapist through the public school system, or you can ask your pediatrician for a referral. If your child is exercising his muscles in appropriate activities, he is learning to regain control over his motor behaviors.

Can the irregular motor behaviors be cured?

It is possible to dramatically improve the motor behaviors through therapy and interactions. It depends upon whether they are symptoms of a larger disorder, and what the severity of the disorder is. However, in some cases children with irregular motor behaviors never completely overcome them. Instead, they learn to adapt, or quickly redirect themselves when they notice they are being observed. People with irregular motor behaviors can become contributing members of society, with families, jobs, and live fulfilling, happy lives.

A final note…

Irregular motor behaviors are not necessarily tics, as seen in Tourette’s Syndrome and other tic disorders. A tic tends to be a burst of sudden movement or vocalization, like a “hiccup” in the brain. Irregular motor behaviors are more continuous and self-stimulatory in nature. If you are concerned that your child may have a tic disorder, see your pediatrician. I will write about Tourette’s syndrome and tics in a future blog.