We've all experienced what Jerry Seinfeld referred to as a “close talker”. My daughter used to have a friend whose mother would get so close to my face when she was talking to me that I could actually feel her breath on my face. My instant reflex was to take a couple steps back but then she would step forward. I kept backing up with her moving toward me until I was backed into a wall or piece of furniture. With nowhere else to go I was forced to stand there with this woman in my face until she finished speaking. At one point she got so close I was afraid she was going to kiss me! What on earth was wrong with her? Did she not realize that she was making me a nervous wreck? I honestly don’t believe she understood the way I was feeling, but I avoided her whenever possible. I had absolutely no desire to be this woman's friend. I wrote her off in my mind as a possible friend for one reason. She stood too close to me when she talked and it really freaked me out. She did not have bad breath. She smelled fine. She was what I would consider to be a very normal person in every way. Except for the fact that she got too close to me when we talked there was nothing wrong with her. But the closeness of her face to mine made me so uncomfortable I was miserable.
I'm not proud of the fact that something this small could make me not want to be someone's friend. But this doesn't make me a bad person. It makes me human. Most of us are uncomfortable when someone invades our personal space. Some people tolerate it better than others. But as parents and therapists for kids with ASD we need to address this issue.
Many kids struggle with personal space issues. You can't see someone's personal space. It is implied. This concept is too abstract for many of our friends on the spectrum. We have to create a way for them to understand what we mean by personal space. We also need to explain how we feel when someone is in our space. Your child may feel differently than you do when someone is in his space. Ask him how he feels. Talk about it. If he says he doesn’t know, get in his personal space and ask, ‘how does this feel?’ ‘Can we have a conversation like this?’ Your child may have never stopped and considered how it felt when someone was in his space so demonstrating what you mean will allow him to experience it and consider it.
Using a hula hoop is a great way to illustrate personal space. Stand inside the hoop so he can see how much space one person needs. A friend of mine actually wore a hula hoop for two days. It was a constant reminder of her personal space. She explained to her son on the first day why she had the hula hoop on, and then it wasn’t necessary to continue to point it out. It served as a constant visual reminder. The only problem was that she forgot she had attached the hula hoop to herself like a piece of clothing and she answered the door. She spent ten minutes talking to her new neighbor and never once gave her an explanation as to why she was wearing a hula hoop. I guess the neighbor got a lesson too! The family next door is a little different.
Often kids will walk in between two people who are having a conversation. They don't see this as an intrusion. To illustrate this, put a large hoop around two people having a conversation at waist level. Now teach your child to walk around. It is easy when he can see the hoop. Have him visualize imaginary hoops after he understands the concept with the actual hoops in place.
If your child has trouble using an imaginary hoop, give him something more concrete. Tell him if he can put his arm straight out and touch another person he is probably too close. Remember that you are talking to a person who understands things in a literal way. So be sure to explain to your child that it is fine for him to enter your personal space to give you a hug, kiss, etc. But that he should step back out of your invisible circle once he has given you your hug. It's not OK to just hang out inside someone's hoop unless he has permission.