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Space Invaders: Personal Space and Autism

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Published: 
October 2, 2014

Photo of boy invading girl's space for autism storyMost of us don't think twice about where to stand when talking to another person. We just know what's right. But for people with autism, this may not be automatic. They may stand too close to others and walk between people who are talking. These behaviors can be socially disabling, according to some researchers.

The TV show Seinfeld poked fun at the "close talker," an otherwise average guy who stands only inches away from a person's face during friendly conversation. Researchers have found that people tend to flee or feel uncomfortable when someone unexpectedly invades their personal space.1 It's not hard to imagine the discomfort, or even fear, that could result when the "space invader" has other unusual mannerisms, too.

Although "seemingly effortless" to most people, judging the right distance to stand from someone is a "complex and dynamic social judgment."2  This skill depends on many factors, such as your relationship to the other person, your age, gender, emotions, culture and, of course, the situation in which you find yourself. How close you stand to a potential boss during a job interview will differ from how close you stand to your girlfriend on a date, or to a stranger at a bus stop. Like your facial expressions, physical proximity says something to another person.  Standing close to someone can communicate romantic interest or, under different circumstances, aggression. If you stand too close, you could have social – and sometimes legal – problems.2

Social Distance and social Success

Photo of Dr. Daniel Kennedy"We don't normally think about it [social distance] when we're interacting with someone, but it's critical for success socially," explained neuroscientist Daniel P. Kennedy Ph.D., an assistant professor at Indiana University. Dr. Kennedy is among the relatively few scientists who have investigated "personal space" (the bubble of space we like to have around ourselves) and "interpersonal distance" (how close we stand to others) in autism. Our proximity to others "is a form of nonverbal communication, just like eye contact and nodding," he said. "It's something we learn spontaneously and automatically during childhood."

But in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this learning can go awry. To study how, he and Dr. Ralph Adolphs of Caltech designed a two-part study, one involving children and the other adults.

First they used information on social behavior from children in the Simons Simplex Collection autism research project and the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE). The Simons project includes more than 2,600 families who each have only one member – a son or daughter – with ASD. AGRE has data on families with multiple members with autism.

They compared the scores of 766 children with autism against 766 of their unaffected brothers and sisters on a standardized questionnaire of autistic social behaviors, which was completed by their parents. An overwhelming majority of the children with autism (79 percent) "were less aware of being too close and more prone to personal space invasions" than their typically-developing siblings.2 These problems were found in children as young as age 4, and, though they improved with age, continued to affect teenagers. The children who had space problems also were more likely to:

  • Touch others in an unusual way,
  • Walk in between two people who are talking, and
  • Be unaware they are talking too loudly or making too much noise.

Investigating social distance in adults with autism

Photo of bird invading space of another birdIn the second part of the study, researchers conducted an experiment with 18 adults with high-functioning autism and 20 unaffected adults (called controls) to see how much space they preferred. To measure their interpersonal distance preferences, they asked each adult to approach an experimenter and stop at the distance that felt "perfectly comfortable." They also asked each adult to stop at the distance that felt slightly uncomfortable; that marked the boundary of his or her personal space. The two measurements are often related: people who like more personal space around themselves tend to stand a bit farther from others. That was true of the control group, but the ASD group tended to have more variety in those measurements.

Still, the average space preferences for the ASD and control groups were similar, even if the relationships between the two measurements differed.

Also, 3 of the 18 adults on the spectrum lacked any sense of personal space. One, for example, violated Dr. Kennedy's space by touching his stomach, grabbing his hand, and touching his face. Another had recently been told that he was standing inappropriately close to someone. All three of the adults had average intelligence, suggesting that IQ alone was not related to personal space.2

In the experiment, all of the adults knew that interpersonal space was being measured, so they may have been more conscious of their behavior, Dr. Kennedy said. "When you take real-world behavior and try to capture it in a lab environment or experimental situation, you sometimes get different results" from what you might see elsewhere. Outside of the lab, when they are not focusing on personal space, the people with ASD might act differently and social distance problems may become more apparent, he said.

Also, some of the adults with ASD said they had been taught how close to stand to someone. One man said he felt more comfortable standing farther away than is typical during a conversation. He had been told to stand closer, so he did so, Dr. Kennedy said. An Italian study of children with ASD also found that they preferred to stand farther away from an adult stranger than typically-developing children did.3

Future research should investigate the role of social distance problems in "real world functioning" of people with ASD, Dr. Kennedy's study concluded. "We have heard reports by parents of significant social and legal problems arising from personal space violations."2

Does the Amygdala Hold Clues to Social Problems in Autism?

MRI image of amygdala in brain Location of amygdala

Some scientists believe that the social problems common to autism may be related to a region of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in social and emotional behavior and motivation.4,5,8

To test that theory, a research team led by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen performed brain scans of 6 adults with autism, and 12 typical adults, as they viewed photos of people's eyes and tried to interpret their emotional states. The adults with ASD did not perform as well on the task as the controls. They also did not appear to use their amygdala, based on the functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans conducted. The study suggests that the amygdala is connected to "social intelligence" – the ability to interpret the social world – and is "abnormal" in autism.6

Interestingly, the six adults with autism made greater use of other parts of their brain when viewing the photos of people's eyes, "perhaps in compensation for an amygdala abnormality," the Baron-Cohen study said.6

In a separate study, a team led by Dr. Kennedy researched the effect of amygdala damage on personal space preferences. They conducted an experiment with "SM," a 42-year-old woman whose amygdala was damaged and completely nonfunctional. SM had no sense of personal space.7 She reported feeling completely comfortable standing nose to nose to someone during an experiment. Still, amygdala damage by itself apparently does not cause autism. A different study involving SM, along with another woman with similar amygdala damage, found that neither one had an autism spectrum disorder.8

A typically functioning amygdala apparently triggers feelings of discomfort when someone violates your personal space, which in turn helps you regulate how close you stand to others. If that is the case, it is possible that a dysfunction in the amygdala contributes to problems in maintaining an appropriate social distance in autism.2 "I think the amygdala is part of a neural circuit involved in the learning or expression of that behavior," Dr. Kennedy said.

Teaching Social Distance to Children with Autism

Children with autism can be taught how to maintain appropriate social distances. Psychologist Scott Bellini, director of the Social Skills Research Clinic at Indiana University, said he uses a type of self-awareness training for this purpose.

"Self-awareness training in our clinic progresses along three levels: self-monitoring, self-regulation, and self-evaluation. The key here is that you cannot regulate or evaluate your own behavior until you have learned to monitor your behavior! I define self-monitoring as keeping track of your behavior. Many behavioral interventions fail because we ask children to regulate or change a behavior that they are not even monitoring. So self-awareness training starts with self-monitoring. We do not ask children to change their behavior at this point, just keep track of it," explained Dr. Bellini, author of Building Social Relationships.

"Once the children are able to monitor their behavior, we then require them to regulate, or change their behavior. The nice thing about this three-level progression is that many kids will automatically regulate their behavior once they begin to monitor it. For instance, if we ask the child to keep track of how many times they violate another person's personal space, they often times begin to regulate their personal space without being prompted to do so," he explained.

The final step involves a child evaluating, or analyzing, his behavior. "This is very, very difficult for children on the autism spectrum. Most parents and professionals can attest to the fact that when you ask a child on the autism spectrum, 'Why did you do that?' a common response is, 'I don't know.' The reason they don't know is because they are on automatic pilot. They are performing behaviors and making behavioral decisions without monitoring themselves." However, if the child is monitoring his own behavior, he can evaluate it, according to Dr. Bellini.

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Additional Resources: 
  • Building Social Relationships: A Systematic Approach to Teaching Social Interaction Skills to Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Social Difficulties by Scott Bellini. Autism Asperger Publishing Company (2006).
  • IAN Community's synopsis of social skills interventions: Social Skills Interventions: Getting to the Core of Autism
References: 
  1. Sundstrom, E. & Altman, I. (1976) Interpersonal Relationships and Personal Space: Research Review and Theoretical Model. Human Ecology. Vol. 4, No. 1, 1976.
  2. Kennedy, D.P & Adolphs, R. (2014) Violations of personal space by individuals with autism spectrum disorder. PLoS One. 2014 Aug 6;9(8):e103369. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103369. View abstract.
  3. Gessaroli E, Santelli E, di Pellegrino G, Frassinetti F. 2013. Personal space regulation in childhood autism spectrum disorders. PLoS One. 2013 Sep 23;8(9):e74959. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0074959. View abstract.
  4. Wright, A. Neuroscience Online. Chapter 6: Limbic System: Amygdala. Retrieved from http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter06.html
  5. Adolphs, R. (2003) Is the human amygdala specialized for processing social information? Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003 Apr;985:326-40. View abstract.
  6. Baron-Cohen, S., Ring H.A., Wheelwright, S., Bullmore, E.T., Brammer, M.J., Simmons, A. & Williams, S.C. (1999) Social intelligence in the normal and autistic brain: an fMRI study. Eur J Neurosci. 1999 Jun;11(6):1891-8. View abstract.
  7. Kennedy, D.P., Gläscher, J., Tyszka, J.M. & Adolphs, R. (2009) Personal space regulation by the human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience 12, 1226 – 1227. View abstract.
  8. Paul, L.K., Corsello, C., Tranel, D. & Adolphs, R. (2010) Does bilateral damage to the human amygdala produce autistic symptoms? J Neurodev Disord. 2010 Sep;2(3):165-173. Epub 2010 Jul 10. View abstract.

Credits: Photo of Dr. Kennedy courtesy of Dr. Kennedy and Indiana University. Image of amygdala location from Wikimedia Commons.