Special Needs Children and Personal Space

Children on the autism spectrum aren’t the only kids who can benefit from learning about the concept of personal space.  Children with ADD and ADHD also struggle with understanding the importance of physical boundaries when relating to other children.  In his book, Social Skills Training for Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and Social-Communications Problems,  Dr. Jed E. Baker provides a helpful exercise called, “Don’t Be a Space Invader.”

The concept itself is pretty easy to teach. Draw a picture of two stick figures. The rule is, “Stand at least an arm’s length away.”

The second statement is, “Don’t Get Too Close.”

Here are some suggested activities to help teach this activity:

  1. Role-play with the student a situation in which s/he must change her/his personal space.

You may want to enlist the help of another student or a sibling as an outside observer. The observer’s task is to say when the two actors (yourself and the child with Asperger’s) get too close, and when they are the right distance from each other.

People can switch roles. Here are some other situations to role play the proper personal space distance:

A.  Greeting others the first time you see them, and saying goodbye when you leave.

B.  Standing in line at school or in public (for example, at a movie, or at a store).

C.  Interrupting someone to ask a question about what was said, or to ask permission to do something.

D.  Riding public transportation (for example, not sitting too or standing too close to others)

E.  Requesting something from someone (asking for a snack someone else is holding, or asking to play with someone’s game or toy).

F.  Using a public restroom (for example, not using the urinal right next to another person if there are others available further away).

  1. Give the student incentives to practice the skill.

Tell the student you are going to test his/her ability to stay at least an arm’s length away. Then, at random times, get too close to him/her at different times, and see if s/he catches on.

  1. Correct inappropriate distance when it happens.

Tell the student, “Don’t be a space invader because it will make others uncomfortable, and then they won’t want to play with you. Keep an arm’s length away.”

  1. Provide rewards for when the children get it right, keeping appropriate distance.

A. Give verbal praise for correct or partially correct distance.

B.  Consider giving tokens, pennies, or points for times during the day in which the child maintained an appropriate distance from others. When the child builds up a certain number of points (5 tokens, for example), give a special reward, such as snack, stickers, or privileges to play a special game.