Not Flapping My Lips

(“Flapping one’s lips” is American slang meaning to stand around talking, usually about nothing important, or gossiping, e.g., the disdainful address, “Don’t you just be standing around there flappin’ your lips.” )

“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
~Edmund Burke

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
~Judith Herman

I’m planning ahead for a script to use sometime again soon, because like many people I suffer terribly from l’Esprit de l’escalier, and can never think of the bon mot or good retort or thought-provoking reply until the moment has long passed …

Sometimes when I get excited, I flap a bit. As in, my hands shake rapidly from side to side, causing my (long, limber) fingers to dually perform that single-handed clapping.  In the recent years, I have learned that “flapping” (done in many different ways) is one of those “stereotypies” associated with autism, or with Down’s, or with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation), or with any number of differences that are often socially ostracised.

Which to me does not make a whole lot of sense.  Seriously, WTF?  It does not harm anyone.  And if you have spent much time in North America and seen game shows like The Price Is Right, then you will have observed a lot of (ostensibly) neurotypical/normal people jumping up and down and flapping in their excitement at being called up to play.  But of course, someone will be sure to point out that is a “special circumstance” and that people who are chosen for the audience are selected because they are excited about the opportunity, and are outrageously dressed, and will generally perform in such highly exaggerated manner, and thus be good television fodder.  Well, perhaps.  But my point is that we all engage in stereotypies. (In a previous post, “Stimulating Topics of Conversation”, I noted that fiddling/stimming is another stereotypy that everyone does.)

Unfortunately, we also engage in stereotyping — it is almost impossible not to at some level, as creating such thought patterns is how the brain organises the world.  But we can be aware of and work against negative stereotypes that are socially harmful.

Of course, to deliver that reply effectively, I have to have a script that is not only thought-provoking and easy to remember (without tripping over the words), but is also SHORT.  And if you have read more than two of my posts, you know that brevity is not my strong suit!

But I know how to get around that in my brain. I turn ideas into bulleted points, which from force of teaching habit makes me distill things into highly condensed form, without a lot of jargon:

  • What exactly are you indicating to me?
  • I am not trying to provoke you, but I’d like you to think about something:
  • Does flapping mean I am stupid?
  • Does flapping mean I cannot do my job?
  • Does flapping hurt anyone?
  • But you are implying those things.
  • Even if you don’t believe them yourself, you are using and reinforcing negative stereotypes.
  • And I don’t believe that helps anyone.
  • So, think about it.

Of course, weeks or months may go by before the next event occurs.  We’ll see if I actually remember the gist of this, and can have enough self-awareness to advocate effectively.

The problem is that I get so in-the-moment that my awareness gets really tunneled — not my vision per se, but my ability to notice what-all is going on, and to also be able to interpret it.  Because of this “tunnelling”,  I spend most of my active processing trying to respond to the event both internally and externally. (Mind you, I’m normally a highly verbal person, so when I start having expressive issues, you know that I’m really taken aback by the situation.)

In this strangely configured moment, when time seems to simultaneously slow down yet slide by too fast, I am:

  1. realising that Yes, this really IS one of those moments, and then in an insecure silent panic, am double-checking my short-term memory to make sure I’m interpreting things correctly,
  2. and remembering Oh! I was going to do something different in response;
  3. and remembering what that was;
  4. and trying to recall the particular wording;
  5. and trying to emblazon some of the key words on my mental desktop so I don’t drop them halfway through the sentence;
  6. and trying to get the words out without losing one, getting clauses out of order, and/or tripping over them by stuttering or mumbling.

From years of speech therapy, I worked really hard to enunciate clearly.  I endeavoured to not use “um”, or “and uh”, what one of my English teachers referred to as “lazy parts of speech”.  Being so conscientious, plus frequently delivering long, scripted, grammatically-correct, fact-riddled announcements full of polysyllabic words earned me no lack of jibing for sounding stilted.  The ironic part is that sometimes I get dysnomic to the point that I don’t even say “um”, or “and uh”, which verbal place-holders would otherwise have alerted others that I was going to finish my sentence, and people have actually wandered off thinking that I was done talking. Not so useful!

Which-all means that by that point I am doing a lousy job of monitoring how others are responding.  Alas, this is the sort of moment when that would be most helpful.  Ditto having my auditory processing on “Record” so I could later reflect upon the chain of events.

Oh, well.  It might not be a “gold medal” response, but I think that recognising the situation and then being able to get my scripted response out is good enough for a bronze.  You think maybe?


  1. Ettina said,

    10 August 2008 at 20:59

    Studies have shown if most people listen to a sentence with an unexpected words – eg ‘I put on my crocodiles’ – they are better able to repeat the sentence if there was an ‘um’ before the unexpected word. It signals something unexpected or complex is coming up.

  2. Phil Schwarz said,

    10 August 2008 at 2:42

    I once attended a Toastmasters meeting at a former place of employment. I ran (figuratively) screaming from the room when I discovered that someone is assigned to *count* “um”s and “uh”s uttered by the speaker. “Um” and “uh” are *not* “lazy parts of speech”. They are essential. They are the x-on/x-off, the control-S and control-Q, the regulators and titrators of the flow of communication from thought to speech, in any system in which there is an impedance mismatch between thought-formation and serialization of thought into linear speech. They indicate to the listener that something of bandwidth (and likely importance) greater than the instantaneous capacity of the speaker’s speech-assembly faculties is in the process of being rendered into language.

  3. Ettina said,

    9 August 2008 at 21:05

    I haven’t seen any NTs flapping except my brother when he’s pretending to be autistic.
    I think it’s a rare thing for NTs to do naturally, whereas many autistics do it a lot of the time.
    But I agree, there’s nothing wrong with flapping. Nor is there anything wrong with twiddling your fingers and staring at them, something I and several other autistics but no NT I’ve ever seen do.

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