Monday, March 24, 2014

Quiet Hands, by Julia Bascom

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.
“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…

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


  1. Julia, this is a wonderful piece and I would like to publish it, with credit to you, obviously, on my blog, Crazy Good Parent. Crazy Good Parent is a blog devoted to giving voice, support and information to parents with neurodiversities. I have published work from parents with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other issues. My readers include those with autism, OCD and all of the neurodiversities I've already mentioned. In May, the posts will focus on physical aspects and care for neurodivisities. I think this piece would work quite well in that context. You can check out the blog at

  2. Hi Janice,

    Feel free! Your blog sounds very cool.

  3. whether i'm autistic or not is debatable (definitely neurodivergent due to diagnosed bipolar ii and a TBI in college) and my bff's pretty much "if somebody held your hands you couldn't talk", so yeah, i think the whole "quiet hands" deal is complete abusive BS.

    every time i read another #actuallyautistic's person's account of what they went through, i'm more "it may have been a GOOD thing i didn't get a formal diagnosis as a kiddo". (i have two honorary great-nephews, and the extended family is expecting to have to fight the system for at least one so they don't end up with "therapy"-related emotional and psychological damage.)

    1. Same here. I didn't know I was autistic till I was 22, and while I've struggled in some ways and I did have a hard time in mainstream education where socialising was concerned, as an adult I have plenty of understanding friends, autistic, otherwise neurodivergent and allistic. They get me. I look back at myself, I remember rocking to comfort myself when upset at school, insisting on sitting with my back to a corner, needing my routine of my hot-drink flask at school and the things and times I didn't understand in the moment and I know it was and is true, that I've been autistic all along, but having known people who had the label as children, even in their teens, I'm grateful I never had their "therapy". I think in retrospect that my late mother might also have been autistic - she was certainly neurodivergent, with her specific "special interests" and other things that I recognise as an adult (she died when I was 16). She was strong-willed but quiet, she had some of the same social difficulties within our village community that I have always had, and she would not have allowed us to be traumatised by ABA, but in some ways I'm still glad I didn't have my label then. So it wasn't a risk. I've seen too much of the harm it's done.


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