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Personal space

Children with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder can sometimes have difficulty understanding how much space they should keep between themselves and other people.

Introduction

Children with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder can sometimes have difficulty understanding how much space they should keep between themselves and other people. This is commonly known as personal space.  

Some children might find respecting personal space difficult because they like to hug and touch other people to meet sensory needs or show affection. Some children may prefer to be physically distant from other people due to their sensory needs, which may be awkward in social situations.

It’s important to support your child to learn how to recognise and respect both their personal space and the personal space of others so that they can make and maintain healthy relationships and participate safely in the community.

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Personal space refers to the physical distance between two people, or how much space there is between them. When somebody is within our personal space, it can make us feel uncomfortable.

Different people prefer different levels of personal space, and it can vary between different situations and different relationships. For example, somebody might be comfortable standing very close to a stranger on a busy train, but not when they are at the shops. Or somebody might be comfortable standing close to their good friend but will stand further away from somebody they don’t know as well. This can make personal space difficult to teach to children who have difficulty interpreting social situations.

When starting to teach about personal space, a good rule of thumb is to use the length of your arms, as seen in this image.

This picture uses the cartoon’s arms as a clear boundary for their own space. The 1.5 metre rule of social distancing can also be a good guide for personal space.

You can also include personal space when teaching about consent to emphasise that your personal space is your own and nobody should enter it unless you say OK.

It is important to teach your child to recognise some clear signs of when they are standing too close in someone’s personal space. When a person’s space is being invaded they might:

  • step or lean back
  • cross their arms
  • look upset
  • turn away
  • leave the situation
  • ask you to go away

Your child might need help recognising these signs. You can support your child to learn by asking people to be clear and direct with your child when their space is being invaded. This will also help your child to learn verbal and non-verbal responses for when their space is being invaded.

Respecting personal space is important for healthy relationships and safe social interactions in the community.  This is because when someone moves into your personal space without your consent, you might feel stressed, overwhelmed or unsafe. Similarly, if you stand too close to someone without their consent, they might feel uncomfortable or upset.

Supporting your child to practice giving and receiving personal space as early as possible can give them a head start in developing skills around:

It is also important that children with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder are supported to recognise that social expectations about personal space can change as they grow up. For example, a small child who likes to stand very close to other people and hug them may be considered cute. However, once they grow into their adult body this is often no longer deemed acceptable and may make people uncomfortable.

Conversation Starters

You are standing too close to me; can you show me where your personal space is?
Can you show me how to measure personal space?
How does it make you feel when someone is too close?

Strategies for you to try

Model personal space for your child and verbalise your actions

You are well placed to show your child how they should respect other people’s personal space. Parents and carers need personal space too! If your child gets too close to you, you could say something like:

“You are standing a bit too close to me at the moment. I’m putting my arms up to show you how close you are. I’m going to take a step away so that we can both feel comfortable”

Measure personal space in a concrete way

If your child finds it difficult to know if they’re too close to somebody, ask them to hold their arms out to see if they are inside or outside the personal space bubble. You could also try equipment like a hula hoop or drawing a circle on the ground to create a visible boundary.

Use teachable moments

Is there a character on their favourite TV show or movie that gets into other people’s personal space? Use these clips to start a discussion with your child about what they think went wrong with an interaction. This is also a great way to see what your child currently understands about social boundaries.

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