TW: Ableism, abuse
Explaining my reaction to this:
means I need to explain my history with this:
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.
In a classroom of language-impaired kids, the most common phrase is a metaphor.
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:
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
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
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
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.
Behavior isn’t communication. It’s something to be controlled.
Flapping your hands doesn’t do anything for you, so it does nothing for me.
I can control it.
If I could just suppress it, you wouldn’t have to do this.
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 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 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
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…
Editor's Note: Quiet Hands, by Julia Bascom, was originally posted on her blog Just Stimming... in October of 2011. It has been one of the most pivotal pieces of neurodivergent literature ever since its writing and we are delighted to be able to bring it NeuroQueer readers here with permission. Love, Ib