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Social Circles

Social Circles - Personal Space & Safety

As best I can determine this method of helping children and young adults with autism learn about personal space and safety originated with the Circle Program, Stanford University Press (date unknown). 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 dificulties make the situation even worse. There are many ways to teach children and young persons with autism about personal safety. This is one method.

How to teach about personal space and safety:

1. 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.").

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.).

6. 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).

7. Optionally, you may also locate a copy of Stranger Danger or Good Touch, Bad Touch, and/or other similar books that teach appropriate personal space and sexual abuse prevention and 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).

Here's what a completed Social Circle may look like:


You may use different colors for each circle to aid in its meaning to the child or young person.

For more information on the use of this and similar activities to teach personal space and safety, see the following links:


Personal Space Etiquette - For a humorous look at personal space see this Youtube video.

Personal Space Camp: Teaching Children the Concepts of Personal Space - A book by Julia Cook: "Personal Space Camp addresses the complex issue of respect for another person's physical boundaries. Told from Louis' perspective, this story is a must-have resource for parents, teachers, and counselors who want to communicate the idea of personal space in a manner that connects with kids."

Book: Teaching Children with Down Syndrome about Their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.

O.A.S.I.S. Web Site - Circle of Friends - Another explanation of the same concept.

Disclaimer: This information is not to be taken as medical or other advice but is provided for educational purposes only. The Autism Home Page does not necessarily endorse all of the information available at the links on this page.