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For people with Down syndrome, family members, caregivers and professionals.

Personal Space

March 2017 | Shana Sexton, LCSW - Social Worker, Adult Down Syndrome Center

Our OT Katie Frank and I led another very exciting social skills group this month for patients 18 and over! We talked about a very important issue – personal space. Understanding personal space is something that many people with DS can find challenging. If you think about it, this probably isn’t something that was ever explained to you. It’s more likely that it’s something you picked up naturally. However, people with DS do not always pick up on these “unwritten” rules of social engagement. Personal space is an especially important skill because it helps someone to interact in a way that doesn’t make others uncomfortable, especially in work and community environments. Understanding personal space is also important to help someone with Down syndrome stay safe.

So what are some ways you can talk to someone with DS about personal space? First of all, it is important to explain why personal space is important. It can be a simple explanation, such as “people feel uncomfortable if you stand too close.” In our group, we practiced standing too close, too far away, and the right distance away to show the differences. It is also helpful to use a visual to help the person understand the concept. Our group talked about standing an arm’s length away from someone. We stood in front of a partner and held an arm out to see how much space this is. Another way is to have the person put a hula hoop around them and talk about keeping an invisible hula hoop around yourself. We also practiced saying “sorry” and moving away if you accidentally stand too close.

One challenging issue with personal space is that there are exceptions. In our group, we played Twister and talked about how playing a game might be a time when the same rules for personal space don’t apply. One person in our group said that playing Twister was “uncomfortable” and we talked about how we don’t usually stand so close to people we don’t know well. We also talked about people who may be in your personal space at times, such as parents, siblings, boyfriends or girlfriends, doctors, or support workers.

Safety for people with DS is an important topic and one I’m sure I will be writing more about in the future. For now, I hope I gave everyone some ideas about how to talk to someone with DS about personal space. Katie and I are looking forward to another fun social skills group next month!

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