Decreasing Behaviors By Increasing Space

January 20, 2012

Preventing Behaviors

Question:  “When my autistic son is angry I want to comfort him and quiet him down by giving him a hug or simply putting my arms around him.  When I attempt to do this he pushes me away.  On the other hand, if I walk away he follows me around the house either whining or sometimes screaming!  If I try to comfort him again he pushes me away again and this just keeps going back and forth.   He’s never had sensory issues with being touched so why is this happening?”

Answer: Keep in mind that when a child is in the second phase of the crisis escalation route (Refusal Phase), as exhibited by your son, that an understanding of interpersonal space is essential.  I’ll define interpersonal space as:

the physical distance between two people.”

Research in the area of crisis prevention/management reveals that when we are in crisis mode, we tend to want people to stay a further physical distance away from us when we are angry or upset with them.  Why?

Because when we are angry with the person we are in crisis with we need time to process our feelings before desiring physical closeness or contact with them.  Your son is having a push/pull response. He doesn’t want you to be too physically close to him because he’s upset with you…yet at the same time…he wants to work it out with you and seeks to be physically near you which is why he follows you around.

Family members are typically okay with another family member being as physically close as 18 inches…or closer.  That distance is called “intimate space” and is usually reserved for loved ones.  During crisis however, the physical distance typically increases an additional 1.5 to 3.0 feet!  People tend to want more “space” when they are angry.

You have to honor his desire for physical space.   Remain just slightly out of arms reach from him.  Continue to interact with him in the way that you normally do when he’s upset but simply do it at a slightly further physical distance.  You son will eventually reach the Calm Down phase that I’ve previously discussed.  When that happens, he will be more receptive to physical touch.  In the meantime, allow him to be the one who approaches you first for physical contact.

Interpersonal space is a Positive Support Strategy.  It is one of 20+ Positive Support Strategies that can be used to prevent or de-escalate crisis behaviors.  To be notified about posts related to Positive Support Strategies click “Like” on the Special Friends Ministry facebook page!

Author: Michael Woods, Director of the Special Friends Ministry at First Baptist Orlando

, , , , , ,

About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

View all posts by Michael Woods


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

3 Comments on “Decreasing Behaviors By Increasing Space”

  1. Linda mccowan Says:

    In the 4th paragraph you say personal space increases from 18″ to 1.5-3 feet. Well, 18″ is the SAME as 1.5 feet!


    • SpecialNeedsMinistry Says:

      Linda, the increase in personal space by 1.5-3ft is in addition to the 18 inches. However, you’ve helped me to see where it’s a bit fuzzy the way that I worded it and I’ve made a change that hopefully will make it more clear for readers. Thank you for catching that.


  2. Doug Goddard Says:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: