Sleeping with T-Rex Arms Doesn’t Mean You Have Autism

Social media users have been self-diagnosing with autism because they often put their arms in a so-called T-Rex pose, including in their sleep. Experts say this does not necessarily mean a person is neurodivergent, with research pointing to autism misinformation on social networks.

April marks Autism Acceptance Month, dedicated to raising public awareness about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and promoting acceptance of autistic individuals.

Although about 1 in 36 children and about 2.21% of adults have been diagnosed with autism in the U.S., there are still many myths surrounding the disorder.

In recent years, social media users — without citing any quality research — have claimed that T-Rex arms can be a sign of ASD.

T-Rex arms position involves bending your arms at about a 90-degree angle with your hands out in front of you. During sleep, T-Rex arms are bent at the elbows and held close to the body.

Rosie Neustadt, BCBA, a clinical director at Circle Care Services, says holding the arms in a T-Rex-like position may provide a sense of security or help manage sensory overload. It can also be a form of stimming — self-stimulatory behavior common among autistic people.

If someone does put their arms in a T-Rex position, that alone would not mean that they have autism. Many people who are not on the spectrum have sensory needs and can find it calming and supportive, or that the position provides them with security.

Neustadt

Do T-Rex arms signal other conditions?

TikTokers have initially linked T-Rex arms with autism and now say this arms position may also signal attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even result from abuse. Some claim sleeping with T-Rex hands means the nervous system is being stuck in a fight or flight state.

The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event we perceive as stressful or frightening. It activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a stress response that prepares the body to stay and fight or run away.

@dr_inna

The transmission of this kind of stuff on social media is a fascinating phenomenon. Fascinating, but also concerning. There is no systematic empirical support for any of it, and the terms a widely misused and lose all meaning. And no, you “relating” to a made-up explanation doesn’t make it a real.

♬ original sound - Inna Kanevsky, Ph. D.

Inna Kanevsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at San Diego Mesa College, calls these claims nonsense.

“If you are in a permanent fight or flight state, you’re not gonna be sleeping. Fight or flight requires activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Most of the time, when we’re asleep, we’re in a parasympathetic state unless we’re dreaming. And you cannot be in a fight or flight state when doing this. This is not how the nervous system works,” Kanevsky said in a TikTok video.

Don’t self-diagnose yourself with autism

Neustadt explains that a range of movements or positions of the hands are commonly observed in autistic individuals. These include flapping, twisting, flicking fingers, or other repetitive movements.

“These gestures are a form of non-verbal communication and can be a way for autistic individuals to express emotions, manage sensory experiences, or engage in self-stimulation for comfort. Understanding these gestures is crucial for better communication and empathy with autistic individuals,” Neustadt says.

However, sensory needs like the T-rex arms position would need to come along with other deficits for a person to be diagnosed with autism, Neustadt says.

An autism diagnosis would require persistent deficits in three areas of social communication and interaction and two of four restricted, repetitive behaviors, as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Autism misinformation on social media

Despite rampant misinformation, social media can be a powerful tool to spread awareness about autism.

A 2023 study analyzed ASD-related YouTube videos and their comment sections. It found that discussion was centralized around providing educational information, discussing personal experiences, and displaying daily life.

Although only 22% of the videos were presented by a healthcare professional, the platform allowed users to share their own experiences of ASD or that of a significant other.

Another recent study looked at popular videos with the #Autism on TikTok. Among the top 133 videos that accrued 11.5 billion views, 27% were classified as accurate, 41% as inaccurate, and 32% as overgeneralized.

The authors say that TikTok can distort understanding about autism by providing blatant misinformation, such as selling products that “cure autism” or saying that the disorder is caused by vaccines.

Additionally, overgeneralizing an individual experience to the entire autism spectrum, as well as not representing the entire spectrum of manifestations, can skew perceptions of ASD.

In short, sleeping with T-Rex arms is not enough to tell whether a person is autistic.

If you think you may be on the spectrum, reach out to health professionals who will guide you through establishing the diagnosis.


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