Personal Space and Autism

My first experience with a group of autistic individuals in a social setting came in the very early 1990’s.  A group of friends had come together to discuss the possibility of fostering research into autism.  Several of our first meetings were celebrated at the Harvard Faculty Club.  A couple of years later, as a result of those meetings, the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) was established.

I always found it interesting that representatives from the community, who had a personal interest in autism, were invited to attend and sit during the brainstorming meetings of our fledgling organization. Later on, in the evening, participants would all gather in a hotel for a social get together.  During those social gatherings many of those attending would bring their autistic family members.  Indeed, our gatherings had more autistic individuals and family members than researchers.  I always thought of the social gathering as the highlight of the day.

Unfortunately, our meeting facilities for social gathering were never autistic friendly.  The meeting rooms at the hotel had many lights, sounds and distractions.  Autistic individuals were often stimming; rocking back and forth, pacing, and hand flapping.  The lack of space made things considerably worse.  Getting bumped occasionally by some attendees was the norm. Curiously, although I never took any personal offense at being bumped, some of the relatives were somewhat flustered. They tried to control, and in essence restrict, the behavior of their autistic relatives.

I remember one of the autistic attendees that, in talking to me, would stand very close, invading my personal space.  Even in the years pre-COVID this lack of social distancing was quite noticeable. Evolutionary Darwinism has explained the need for personal space as territoriality.  In prehistoric times, ensuring our territory and keeping other males away from the same, was a way of ensuring procreation.  Invading the bubble of your personal space, in that regards, would be considered an act of aggression.  In a funny twist on words, some autistic individuals have been labelled “space invaders”; a throwback to the popular 1970’s arcade game of the same name and a description of their propensity to stand close to other people.

I heard a therapist once say that a disregard for personal space could represent a difficulty with non-verbal communication.  However, the same autistic individual who invaded my personal space could understand and communicate with me through many of his gestures. In this regard, a lack of personal space is more likely the result of misunderstanding social etiquette, procedures, and expectations rather than a difficulty in non-verbal communication. It is therefore of interest that autistic individuals who misjudge personal space are also more likely to touch others in an unusual way, walk in-between two people who are talking, and be unaware if they are talking too loudly or making too much noise.

Autistic individuals can be taught, if necessary, the basics of personal space.  Some educational approaches are meant to enhance executive functions by increasing self-awareness and by enhancing self-monitoring skills in regards to their own behaviors. Children, in particular, can gain from learning about personal space through picture story telling.  A free learning video for children is available at the PESI website (https://www.pesi.com/blog/details/1085/how-to-teach-a-child-with-autism-about-personal-space).

References

Casanova MF. Autism Updated: Symptoms, Treatments and Controversies.  Amazon Publishing, 2019.

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