Teaching Personal Space to Children

Two children hugging outside.

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Children with disabilities, especially children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, have difficulty understanding and appropriately using personal space. Its importance is significant. When they reach adolescence, many of these young people become particularly vulnerable to assault or predation because they are unaware of the social and emotional boundaries that are important in the general public. 

Deep Pressure

Some children with ASD are what we call "deep pressure." They seek as much sensory input as they can get. They will throw their arms around not only significant adults in their lives but sometimes to complete strangers. I worked five years ago as a volunteer at a camp at Torino Ranch, maintained by the Torino Foundation.  When my camper came off the bus he threw his arms around me (we had never met,) and I ticked off "deep pressure kid," which led to four days of success. I used that sensory need to keep him calm and appropriate. Still, these students need to learn appropriate interaction. 

The Science of Personal Space

Proxemics, or the science of personal space, explores how we as humans and as social and ethnic groups use the space around us. Research has found that in a typical person, the amygdala of the brain responds negatively to the invasion of personal space. Research has not been definitive on the effect of population density on the size of personal space, as reported by anthropologists, but this writer has experienced it. In Paris in 1985, I attended a concert at the Place de Concord with somewhere in the range of 50 to 60 thousand people. Someone started to push at the outside (word was out that they were "thugs" [clouchards]). Amazingly, after several minutes of chanting "Assis! Assis!" (sit down), we sat down. Probably a couple of thousand people. I looked at an American friend and said: "In America, we would have had a fistfight."

This, of course, is why it's important for special education students to understand personal space. Students with autism may resist everyone entering their personal space but all too often their amygdala is not firing when someone comes into their space. We know they can't understand another person's desire for personal space. 

There are three things needed to help them learn this:

  1. A metaphor that can help them understand personal space.
  2. Modeling to show how we use personal space.
  3. Explicit instruction in the use of personal space. 

The Metaphor: The Magic Bubble

Typical children and typical human beings are able to write their own "meta-narrative," the story of their life. Face it, when a woman gets married she often has a lifetime of plans dancing in her head about the perfect wedding (or her mother's dream.) Children with disabilities, especially children with autism spectrum disorders, are unable to write those meta-narratives. That is why social stories or social narratives are so powerful. They use visual images, a story, and often the child's own name. I will be changing the name in the original document for the children I will use it with.

I created the social narrative "Jeffie's Magic Bubble" to support students with autism spectrum disorders. It uses the metaphor "a magic bubble" to define the invisible space around each of us that is also called "personal space." Children with disabilities love to play with bubbles, so using it as a metaphor will provide a visible understanding of what that space is like. 


Once the model is established by reading the book, make a game of magic bubbles. Have children spin and identify the edge of their bubbles. Arm's length is a good compromise between intimate and familiar personal space.

Practice welcoming others into their magic bubbles by putting hands out and greeting others with a handshake. "Hi, I'm Jeffie. Nice to meet you." 

Make a game of Magic Bubbles by giving students clickers and having others come as close as they can without stepping inside another child's personal bubble. The student in their "Magic Bubble" will click when they think the other student or students enter their bubble.

Explicit Instruction

Read the book "Jeffie's Magic Bubble" aloud as a group. If students need individual instruction (so they are better at paying attention to personal space), you will want to read it to those students over and over again. 

After reading each page, have students practice: when you get to crossing arms and hands on hips, have them practice. When you read about Jeffie saying "NO," practice saying "NO!" Practice asking friends for a hug. 

Be sure that you recognize students who respect each others' personal space. You might want each child to have a "magic bubble" chart. Hand out stickers or stars for each time you catch them asking to enter another child's space or asking another student politely to move outside of their personal space.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Teaching Personal Space to Children." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/teaching-personal-space-3110387. Webster, Jerry. (2020, August 28). Teaching Personal Space to Children. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/teaching-personal-space-3110387 Webster, Jerry. "Teaching Personal Space to Children." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/teaching-personal-space-3110387 (accessed May 12, 2021).