Many young people on the autism spectrum can get confused regarding personal space when they are walking together with otherpeople. Professionals working with youth on the spectrum in therapeutic recreation programs encounter these problems frequently. At a mall or on a trail in a park, it is not uncommon for some individuals to remain rather solitary during these group outings. Some dart ahead of the group, restless and lost in thought. Others lag far behind, examining an interesting flower, stone or store merchandise. In either case, they are not well acquainted with the set of skills associated with walking together, keeping appropriate distance from others and conversing with them.
A big rope, about fifteen feet long, is a very useful visual device for increasing awareness of “connectedness” during outings. Before the walk, you can get together with the young people and say something like this, using the rope as your prop:
“When people are together on a walk, it’s like they are connected together by an invisible rope. Even though they are all walking separately using their own legs, they are also walking together. If you get too far behind the other people, then if they think of something interesting to tell you or show you, you are too far away to hear them. They might feel like you are slowing them down. If you run ahead, the people you are with might feel like you are trying to get away from them or rush them. When you are walking with your friends, try to stay between this distance … and this distance.”
[Here us where you have everyone gather around, and you use your rope to show “too far ahead” and “too far behind.”]
Later, when I am on the walk following this mini-lesson employing the rope, I use a “hauling in the rope” pantomime gesture to remind kids who are drifting away that they need to remain “tied together” with their companions.
I hope you this visual-based social skills training method is helpful for your students and clients on the autism spectrum.
Joel Shaul, LCSW