Fact sheet on communication issues with Autism,  the most common pervasive developmental disorder


by Gary J. Heffner


This method of helping children and young adults with autism learn about personal space and safety originated with the Circle Program, Stanford University Press. I have used a variant of the model to teach the same thing to the children and young persons I work with at the Judevine Center for Autism Training at Gracewood State School and Hospital in Gracewood, Georgia.


Many children and young persons with autism are not aware of the "social dance" that we all learned as kids. We learned how to converse with others, to take turns, to stand a certain distance away from people, and we learned how to know that others are invading our personal space and what to do about it. No one taught us this stuff in class, we just picked it up.


Persons with autism often are not aware of the dangers in social relationships. They are at special risk for abuse and exploitation. Unfortunately, their communication difficulties make the situation even worse. There are many ways to teach children and young persons with autism about personal safety. This is one method.


Teach kids with autism about personal space and safety

Use a social story to explain the reasons for personal space and personal safety (e.g., "Sometimes I stand too close to other people. When I do this, the other person may get mad at me because I am too close. The other person may think I am trying to hurt them. I will try to stand one arm length away from people when I talk to them unless it is my Mom, Dad, or grandparent.").


Set aside a time for teaching about “Social Circles”. Social Circles is a graphic way of showing children the different levels of familiarity we are to have with people we know and don't know.


Start by drawing a small circle on a large piece of blank paper. Write the child's name in the circle and/or paste his picture there. Tell him this is his personal space, his body, and that only certain people can get real close to him.


Draw a larger circle around the child's circle and write “family” in this larger circle. You can write and/or paste pictures of immediate family members (mom, dad, brother, grandmothers, grandfathers, close uncles and aunts) in this circle. Explain that these people are family members. They may kiss or hug him and it’s okay to sit on their lap, etc. Explain the sort of behavior that you feel is appropriate with these people.


Next draw an even larger circle around the child's and the family circle. Label this circle “friends & neighbors – people you know”. Write the names and/or paste pictures of people who fit into this category (e.g., next door neighbors, close church members, teachers, Sunday School teacher, etc.). Explain the sort of closeness and behavior that you feel is appropriate with this category of people (e.g., they wave at you, say “hello”, they may hug you if you want them to hug you, etc.).


Lastly, draw an even larger circle around the outside of all three smaller circles. Label this largest of the circles “strangers – people you don't know”. Explain that it is not okay to hug, kiss, get too close, or touch strangers or to allow them to touch you. Later you can explain the exceptions to this (e.g., a policeman when you’re lost, doctors when Mom or Dad are present, etc.). You want to get across the idea that no one has the right to touch him without permission and that he cannot touch strangers, period (for now).


You may use different colors for each circle to aid in its meaning to the child or young person. Remember that visual cues like this are a great way to back up verbal communication if a child has autism or Asperger's syndrome.


You may also locate a copy of Stranger Danger or Good Touch Bad Touch, and similar books that teach appropriate personal space and sexual abuse prevention. Read it with the child, explaining as necessary. A good method is to use a Ken or Barbie doll (depending upon the child's sex) to teach that his or her private area is the area covered by their swim suit. Teach the child to loudly say "No" if anyone tries to touch their private area (If the child is not verbal, teach him or her to get away). Teach the child a way to tell an adult that someone has tried to touch their private area (use a sign or picture if the child in non-verbal).


by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.


Click to shut this Autism personal story

Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories at www.autism-help.org
See the Communication skills page for more information on communication issues.
Click here to read a parents' example of how the early intervention program used for their child's communication issues.

Visit http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/environmental.msnw which is the autism home page of Gary Heffner, the author of this article. This fact sheet remains under his copyright and is used with his permission. You are encouraged to visit his site as it is one of the few autism websites offering free comprehensive information.

Social circles is a method of helping children and young adults with Autism to  learn about personal space and safety. It originated with the Circle Program, Stanford University Press and has been adapted for Autism Spectrum Disorders