Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Explaining Personal Space to Your ASD Child

As with so many things related to ASD, there is a wide range of behavior when it comes to personal space and touching. Some kids don't want to be touched and they certainly don't want to snuggle. Others (like my son) have no understanding of personal space or inappropriate touching. He's still a snuggler at the age of ten, though, so it's not all bad. :-) We just have to teach him what is appropriate and what isn't.

When someone doesn't understand personal boundaries, they often annoy those around them by standing too close, touching too much or in the wrong places, or hugging inappropriately. I remember having J in Sunday School class/nursery at church when he was 18 months-2 years (long before I had even heard of Asperger's). I was in there with him during that time as a teacher, along with several other parents. (We had a 2-1 ratio and it was a big class.) J would hug the other kids, but then not let go and they would end up both falling over. Or the other child would get tired of the game and want loose. I would have to go pry J off the other child. Most of the other teachers were also parents of children in the class, and they just thought it was cute and sweet. No one was ever hurt.  I used to say, "It's a hug for about five seconds. After that, it's assault." (Actually, I still say that.) Well, what's funny at the age of two isn't so funny at the age of 15 or 20. So I'm always trying to teach him what is appropriate behavior so we don't end up with a serious problem later.

So when my friend K posted this list on an email group, I pounced on it. Her large family was leaving soon for a trip that would put eight people (including three adults) in two motel rooms together for five days. To help remind everyone to respect each other's space, she cobbled this list together from various places online. She didn't mean it to be, but it's actually a perfect list for an ASD child. For mine, anyway. So I asked her if I could share it here, and she graciously agreed.

I have used several of these ideas over the years, but it's great to have them all in one spot. I especially like the reminder not to touch anywhere a girl's bathing suit covers. I've always told J that any place your underwear covers is off-limits. Except that he never remembers that girls wear underwear on top, too. Fortunately, we haven't had any incidents since he was three or four, when he was still young enough that it wasn't a problem. (Nothing serious, he was pointing to the design on a teenager's shirt and he got too close.) Now I just have to remember to remind him about the bathing suit rule.

Reading these again reminded me of something else. Everyone deserves to have their body and their personal space respected. If a friend or family member wants to hug your child and the child is not comfortable with that, please do not force the child. This applies to neurotypical children as well. You may think a hug is harmless and it's rude to refuse one, but how can we teach our children to respect others if we don't show them any respect? We also need to be teaching them that they are in control of who touches their bodies, not someone else. It is just a hug, and the adult involved should be mature enough to accept that the child does not want to be hugged/touched at that particular time.

Space Rules
The basic concept of "personal space" is an important social rule. It's a simple idea--each of us has an invisible bubble around us where we feel safe, and if someone crosses into it we become uncomfortable.
1. Intimate distance ranges from touching to about 18 inches (46 cm) apart, reserve quick hugs by siblings and mommy and daddy  “HUGGING SPACE”

2. Personal distance begins about an arm's length away; starting around 18 inches (46 cm) from the person and ending about 4 feet (122 cm) away. “TALKING SPACE WITH FAMILY”.

3. Social distance ranges from 4 to 8 feet (1.2 m - 2.4 m) away from the person and is reserved for strangers and most friends “TALKING AND PLAYING SPACE WITH EVERYONE ELSE”

4. Personal items- do not go in someone’s else drawers, suitcase, or bags with out asking permission. Do need eat their food, candy, use their hair brush or tooth paste, etc without asking them first.

5. Bathroom manners and space- if the door is closed DO NOT open it without knocking and waiting for a response. If you are invited in go in, if not, wait until the person in the bathroom comes out or invites you in. Do not ask more than once for permission to go in to the bathroom. Always pick up before you leave the bathroom (clothes, toilet paper off floor, flush toilet, take stuff out with you, and wash off toothpaste).

6. Dressing rules- dress in the bathrooms (or bedroom) only. No walking around in underwear.

Touching Rules
· Any body part that a girl’s bathing suit would cover is off limits unless a trusted adult is helping with a bath or toileting.

· Hugs are to be around the neck only

· Poking, hitting on the bottom, unwanted tickling, jumping on someone’s back, and hanging onto others is an invasion of personal space and not appropriate to do to friends or family.

· Ask permission before entering someone’s personal space such as sitting on an adult’s lap, or holding someone’s hand, sitting in a chair next to someone you don’t know (say may I sit here) or at a table (always ask first before sitting down or putting your stuff there)

· It is okay to say "no" to any form of touch such as someone asking to hug you or kiss you

· Listen when someone asks to stop touching him or her. If they say no once- then its NO. Don’t ask again! Even if they may be joking around.

· Always offer a handshake when meeting or greeting people and if they offer a hug and you want to give one you can but YOU never have too!

What do you think of this list? Do you have anything to add?


Anonymous said...

I think I'm going to print this and hang it up in our house! Great post.

Amanda said...

Thanks! Glad you found it helpful!

Anonymous said...

My 4 and a half year old is currently under observation for an ASD diagnosis, and personal space is a huge issue for us. I read this post a few months ago and have tried explaining it to my son, but he is still refusing to take any of it on board. I was wondering if you have any particular techniques or exercises that help get the message across?

Amanda said...

I don't, but I'll send out the link and see if anyone else has any suggestions. I just have to keep reminding mine, "That's not appropriate," and "Personal space". Once I remind him, we don't need a long discussion, but he's almost 12, and that's a lot different from 4.

Laura-Libby said...

My son is 5 and we do a LOT of reminding. I have found language is important. It's not just reminding him, but phrasing it the same every time. Like when he's yelling I tell him he's at a volume 8-10 and he needs to be at a 1 or 2. With personal space it depends on what he's doing. Hand in my shirt is a different response than just in someone's space. I have visual and verbal cues like arms length. I ask, are you an arms length from "person"? We've discussed that people need an arm between them to feel comfortable so the arm allows consistency with verbal and visual cues. I also remind him if he's being too hard that he's using a 8-10 and needs to be at a 1 or 2, same as volume. This keeps the consistency from volume. I also remind him he doesn't like it when others are too close, and same for him. Tone is equally important. Firm, with no emotion. Of you're upset they'll get upset.

Amanda said...

Thanks, Laura!

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