Simple drawing of a pair of hands with one on top of the other and the heading, “Quiet Hands.”

Today while cleaning out a cluttered corner of our living room, I found a large, laminated card that someone made for our son when he was very young, maybe four or five years old. The card shows a pair of hands with one resting on top of the other, and the words, “Quiet Hands.”

I immediately felt a pang of guilt and regret for allowing so many educators, speech, physical, and occupational therapists, behaviorists, babysitters, and others over the years to tell my now 14-year-old son to have “Quiet Hands” and “Quiet Body.” I have said those words myself but am learning not to. I still slip up sometimes.

My son has not rebelled against this. He seems to want to comply. But I now understand that movement is how he makes sense of the world, expresses anxiety, joy, or excitement, and calms himself. I have also observed that despite the appearance of not paying attention, he often is picking up more than expected. I think many of us need to revise our working model of attention.

Rather than “Quiet Hands,” I try to be curious about what he is trying to tell me. He can speak, and I ask him, but sometimes I have a hard time understanding what he says and/or he has difficulty expressing the feelings in words. Regardless of whether we communicate with one another through speech, it’s clear he is communicating. My job is to listen and try to meet the need — for connection, empathy, a hug, something to squish, a break, a new activity, a snack. These needs are human and okay. I need these things too.

Can we make a world where it is safe to express a need with a fidget, a jump, a wiggle of the hand? Can we teach children and adults who express their needs in more accepted ways to be more curious and less judgmental towards peers whose hands and bodies are in motion?

I am easily distracted by noise. As I write this, I am wearing noise canceling headphones to help me focus. And so I understand that my son’s verbalizations and movements may be distracting to others. But my son has intense sensory needs, and he, too, is distracted by visual stimuli, noises, and smells that bombard him anytime he is in a shared space. My son does need to learn to tolerate the world, at least sometimes, in all its chaos and overwhelm. But others must also learn to accept my son’s behaviors unless they cause harm.

I was tempted to burn the “Quiet Hands” card but settled for tossing it in the trash. Doing so gave me a real sense of satisfaction. I regret not getting rid of it sooner, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn, grow, and do better.

Sarah Taylor, MSW, PhD, is a Professor and Chair in Social Work at CSU East Bay and a parent of a child with a disability. Views expressed are solely her own.

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