Boundaries: Public, Private, Personal Space

Many young people with autism experience difficulties with understanding the need for appropriate social boundaries.

Teaching teenagers with autism about personal boundaries may help them avoid embarrassing situations and thus, may help prevent them from getting into risky/troublesome situations.

It can be useful to agree rules regarding what behaviour is appropriate in public and private spaces.

It is important to explain what personal space is and to practice an appropriate space between the teenager with autism and different groups of people e.g. It is ok to stand this close to a friend, it’s not ok to stand this close to an acquaintance, teacher, etc.

Different cultures maintain different standards of personal space. For example, the personal space for people in Japan might be much larger than for people in Italy.   Anthropologist and proxemics expert Edward T. Hall (Hall, Edward T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. Anchor Books.) has broken down the distances of personal territory into four areas:


  • 0 – 0.5 metre: Intimate distance
  • 0.5 metre – 1.5 metres: Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family members
  • 1.5 metres – 3.5 metres: Social distance for interactions among acquaintances/classmates/co-workers/strangers
  • 3.5 metres – 7 metres or more: Public distance used for public speaking

Teach the difference between different groups of people in the teenager’s life and what behaviour is appropriate with each group e.g.:

  • Family – these are the people who live at home with me, it is ok to hug a person in my family
  • Teachers – these are the people who stand in front of the class at school and teach me things, it is not ok to hug teachers (all about hugs)
  • Strangers – a stranger is someone I don’t know. I don’t know a stranger’s name. It is not ok to hug or kiss a stranger