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Autism & Personal Space Issues

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

In this lesson, you will learn about what personal space is, what variables affect it, and how typical people manage it. You will also learn about the difficulties people with autism face in understanding personal space and how they can learn to manage it more appropriately.

The Close Talker

A classic episode of the TV comedy Seinfeld included a character named Aaron. Aaron was a 'close talker'. He stood just a few inches from people when conversing with them. Aaron was otherwise a normal, friendly guy, but his tendency to get in others' faces often made them very uncomfortable!

People with autism spectrum disorders frequently are close talkers, too. They don't have much understanding of personal space. Seinfeld played the issue for laughs, but for people with autism it's no laughing matter. In this lesson, we will explore the idea of personal space, the bubble of space we each like to have around ourselves, and how it varies from person to person and from one culture to another. Then we will delve more deeply into the specific issues people with autism have with interpersonal distance, and ways they can learn to monitor and use it effectively.

Personal Space Around the World

Studies show there is no single answer as to what distance is too close in interactions between people. Women, according to some studies, tend to prefer a slightly greater distance than men, and older people prefer more space than younger people.

Preferences vary with the relationship between the people involved, and even with the part of the world. One recent study showed people in warm climates tolerated less distance between themselves and conversational partners, while people in colder climes preferred more closeness with those they are close to.

personal space distance identified in early research in the 1960s
graph of personal space

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