Physical boundaries and social distance

Boundaries kind of gets used as a buzzword. So I’m writing some posts about how I understand boundaries. This post is most about physical boundaries.

What I mean by boundaries is that people have things that are completely theirs, physically and emotionally. It’s important to respect what belongs to someone else, and not treat it like it’s yours. This is especially true of someone else’s body, their personal space, their thoughts, and their feelings. Respecting physical and emotional boundaries is part of respecting other people’s humanity.

People have the right to control what happens to their body. If someone doesn’t want you to touch them, it’s important not to, even if you really want to. And it’s important not to put pressure on them to change their mind. And that’s true whether or not your intentions are sexual. Platonic boundary violations are still boundary violations.

(This is slightly more complicated than it sounds. For instance, it’s usually considered insulting to refuse to shake hands with someone unless you have a really compelling reason not to (eg: if it’s physically dangerous). I will write more about nuances in the future. But on a basic level, this is how bodies and boundaries work. And, even if someone is being unreasonable, it’s still important to not touch them against their will.)

Some things that are not technically someone’s body follow similar principles. Clothing and jewelry that someone is wearing are like their body in this way. So are purses and wallets. Mobility and adaptive equipment (eg: a wheelchair or communication device) is *especially* like someone’s body. This is true even if someone isn’t touching their equipment (eg: if someone’s not sitting in their wheelchair right now, it’s still like part of their body and you still shouldn’t touch it unless they want you to).

Personal space is also like someone’s body. Getting too close to someone is like touching them without permission. Personal space is a bit hard to define, because it depends a lot on context and culture. For instance, it’s ok to stand closer to people in an elevator than in an empty hallway. It’s a kind of thing where you have to develop your judgement. (To an extent by trial and error; watching what other people are doing can also be helpful.)

When people are uncomfortable with how close you are to them, they are usually more likely to communicate this with body language than with words. If you’re interacting with someone and they look uncomfortable, it’s worth considering whether you might be standing or sitting too close. If you think you might be, it’s worth trying giving them a bit more space and seeing what happens.

Sometimes when people are uncomfortable with how close you’re standing or sitting, they try to fix this by moving away to a distance they feel comfortable with. If someone does this, it’s good to err on the side of assuming it’s intentional. (Particularly if they move further away more than once.) If you repeatedly get closer to someone when they’re trying to create more distance, they’re likely to regard it as a threat. From their perspective, they’re saying no and you’re doing it anyway.

It can be hard to learn to understand social distance, especially if you have trouble understanding body language. It’s also both possible and important.

tl;dr It’s important to respect boundaries. One important boundary is a person’s right to control what happens to their body. An important part of this is to not touch people who don’t want to be touched. Some things a person might have are similar to their body. Standing too close to people is similar to touching them. Scroll up for more about how to tell where the lines are.

initiating conversations



Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

My voice is really quiet when I speak. People don’t hear me the first time nine times out of ten. I feel like I’m yelling and people still barely hear me. I’m shy and sort of autistic. Help?

realsocialskills said:

This sounds really similar to a problem I used to have (and to an extent, still have). I used to regularly get such a complete non-response from people I spoke to that I couldn’t always feel sure I’d even said anything.

For me, part of the problem was volume (and I might write about that part eventually), but another part of the problem was that people often didn’t realize that I was trying to talk to them. I wasn’t doing any of the things people look at as a way to tell the difference between someone talking *to* them and someone talking *near* them.

A major cue that people look for is eye contact, which I basically didn’t understand at all until a few years ago. I know that eye contact is a loaded, so I  want to be explicit about this: I am not here to tell you to make eye contact, or to tell you that you’re irredeemably socially broken if you can’t or won’t. You’re ok, and capable of social interaction, whether or not you ever look anyone in the eye.

That said, I think that it’s worth knowing what people are expecting.

Most neurotypical sighted people in English-speaking cultures assume that people who want to talk to them will make eye contact with them first as a way of initiating conversation. 

That kind of eye contact works kind of like this:

  • You look at them, indicating that you’d like their attention
  • They look back, indicating that they noticed and are paying attention to you
  • Then you talk to them, and they hear what you say

People who expect conversations to be initiated with eye contact often have trouble understanding the intentions of people who don’t make expected forms of eye contact. They often don’t understand that we’re trying to talk to them. So, it’s important to find an effective way to tell them that.

One possible way is to learn how to do something approximating the form of eye contact they’re expecting. Some people who can’t handle full-blown interpersonal eye contact *can* learn how to use eye contact for the purpose of initiating conversation. (I can do it some, but it’s a skill I’m still working on and I’m not totally sure how to describe it.)

I find that it helps to keep in mind that using eye contact to initiate a conversation doesn’t mean that you have to use eye contact to *sustain* the conversation. I fairly frequently use eye contact to start a conversation and then spend the whole conversation starting at a stim toy. For me, it works fairly well a lot of the time.

It’s also not all-or-nothing: 

  • If you can’t look at eyes, you might be able to initiate conversations by looking at noses, foreheads, or chins
  • If you can’t look at faces at all, you might be able to initiate conversations by turning your head or body in their general direction

For some people, it’s well worth learning how to do this. But others can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t want to, and it’s not the only option.  Fake and real eye contact aren’t the only ways to start conversations.

The basic principle is that, if you want to start talking to someone, you need to indicate in some way that you want their attention *before* you say what you want to say. 

One way you can indicate that you’re requesting attention is by saying their name (if you know it). Most people listen for their name, and will assume that a person who says it near them is probably trying to get their attention.

Eg, this is a fairly typical interaction:

  • Brenda: Hey, Mandy?
  • Mandy: Brenda, did you say something to me? 
  • Brenda: Yeah, I was wondering if you knew where the extra chairs are.

There are also other kinds of attention words/phrases that people listen for, eg:

  • “Excuse me?”
  • “Hello”
  • “Hi”
  • “Do you have a minute?”
  • “ma’am?”/“sir?” (these two are loaded in all kinds of other ways which I hope to address in a different post)

These all have somewhat different connotations, but they all contain the message of “I am trying to get your attention. Now would be a good time to let me know you’re paying attention and listen to what I’m saying.” Eg:

  • James: Excuse me?
  • Bill: Yeah, what’s up?
  • James: I’m trying to sleep. Would you mind wearing headphones to listen to that heavy metal?


  • Carla: Hi
  • Judith: Hello
  • Carla: That picture is pretty. Where did you get it?

tl;dr: When you want people to hear what you’re saying, it helps to make sure they know you’re talking to them. Eye contact is one way, but it isn’t the only way.

Readers, what say you? How do y’all get people’s attention so they hear you?

evalilith said:

I’m not autistic, but this is something I have trouble with as well. It especially increases if I am anxious, even if I am not anxious about the person I am trying to talk to.

The eye contact and attention phrases are probably the best way to get the attention of someone you do not know very well.

However, sometimes it is also hard to get the attention of people you do know. For example, you might be in a group of friends who are all louder than you, and want to make a statement to a specific friend. Or you might be with someone in public, and they are paying more attention to the surroundings than they are to you. This can happen if the two of you are shopping, for example.

In this case, gentle touch can also be appropriate. Obviously, it has to be someone you are comfortable touching and who you are confident is comfortable being touched. This is harder for some than for others, so it won’t work for everyone.

Usually, a light touch on the outside of the arm, either at the elbow or the shoulder, is best. Most people consider that okay, and it will get their attention.

Also, you can talk to the people you know about this problem. As I said before, I have an even harder time increasing my volume when I am anxious. This means it is very difficult for me to ask for help or to go someplace quieter. However, my friends know this, and if we are in a large, crowded situation where I might get anxious, they check in with me. They try to ask specific questions that I can give short answers to, and they know to listen closely because my voice is soft.

realsocialskills said:

I know attention-getting touch is sometimes ok, but I don’t really understand when it is and isn’t. So it’s not something I do, and so I don’t really know how to describe the parameters. 

It’s definitely a thing though.

Liking something vs wanting it from everyone

These are all things:

  • Liking an activity or kind of interaction
  • Wanting to do that activity or interaction with everyone or most people who want it from you
  • Wanting to do that thing with every nice person you like who wants it from you.

These are often conflated, but they shouldn’t be. They are different. It is possible, and ok, to like something but not want it from everyone.

Here is a common example; the next couple of posts will be different common examples


  • Some people like to be touched; some people don’t
  • Some people are ok with being touched by strangers; some people aren’t
  • Some people like to be touched by friends, but not people they aren’t close with
  • Some people who like being touched by friends like being touched by everyone they like; some people only like being touched by some people
  • Some people only like affectionate touch from sexual or romantic partners
  • Some people only like affectionate touch from close relatives
  • All of these things are ok, and liking some forms of touch doesn’t mean you have to like or accept touch from everyone

Touch vs touchy-feely

teatimewithheyes replied to your post: Keeping your touchy-feely off others.

For some people, touching is part of normative cultural communication. I know this because I am a Yankee and I don’t like to be touched by or to touch strangers who happens to have met enough people who feel as I have described above.

That is true. I’m not talking about normative touch (for example, in some places shaking hands is socially expected). That has its own issues, but that’s not what I’m trying to address here.

I’m talking about people who go *beyond* socially normative touch in order to be more intimate with others than is socially normative.

That’s a bad thing to do even when it does not have any sexual overtones whatsoever.