SOCIAL CIRCLES- PERSONAL
SPACE & SAFETY
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
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
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
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
by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories
See the Communication
skills page for more information on communication issues.
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.