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Your Personal Space Bubble

A few weeks ago, I walked through Chicago’s O’Hare airport to fly home to DC after a conference. I scanned the waiting area at my terminal and chose a bench to sit and wait for boarding to begin. The swarming fairies of my autistic mind were unsettled, as they often become when I have to go through TSA, so I pulled up on Spotify on my phone and thought about what music I might choose to soothe them.

As I sat down, the man at the seat next to me suddenly jumped up and grabbed his bag. It seemed like correlation, not causation. As he abruptly hurried away, he muttered, "Why don’t you sit on my fucking lap next time?" and glanced angrily back in my direction over his shoulder.

The reaction seemed unrelated to anything I’d done. He's probably not talking to me, I thought. I raised my eyebrows and looked around for clues.

Assessing the context, there was no other obvious transgressor. He was, as it turned out, most likely directing the criticism my way.

Nonetheless, I remained in healthy don’t-take-it-personally territory. My hypothesis: the man’s dysfunction, swearing audibly at a stranger, was a socially-unacceptable expression of intolerance. The behavior fit with my definition of autism. When I sat next to him on the bench, making an incursion into what must’ve been an extra-large sensitivity zone, I had triggered it.

I’m aware that it’s controversial for me to issue a snap diagnosis and suggest that autism was the most likely culprit. I’m not a medical professional. I barely interacted with him. Using only my personal experience as a guide, I am going out on a limb here.

The “personal space bubble” concept helps me understand the autistic experience in general, as well as this person’s behavior specifically.

A personal space bubble is a zone of sensitivity around one’s body. It’s a real, physical space. You can read about it in the APA Dictionary of Psychology.

Consider how you experience your own. Under certain conditions, your personal space bubble may be small. If you’re with a group of friends, laughing and playing cards around a dinner table, you might be fine with shoulders touching and knees bumping. Hugging your grandmother or whispering in your partner’s ear at a movie does little to affect it.

Other times, it’s enormous. Does something immediately come to mind? Maybe it’s when you’re on stage in front of a live audience. Maybe it’s walking down the street in Manhattan. Maybe it’s when you’re shopping for wart remover cream at the pharmacy, or when you have to get changed in that weird locker room at the public pool (is that why you don’t go to public pools?).

Whatever its size in a given moment, you get along fine as long as people stay outside your personal space bubble.

If someone steps inside it, on the other hand, watch out. You tense up. You become hyper-vigilant. The countdown to Overreaction Time starts ticking. When somebody violates your bubble, punctures it, or applies too much pressure, it bursts. Even invited people, those on your VIP list, have expiration dates and can trigger your frantic coping mechanisms. If the violator doesn’t move on or back away, then you’re going to freak out, spaz, or express your discomfort in some socially unacceptable way, as my compatriot in the airport did.

As a general rule of thumb, your bubble’s surface and interior are the only parts of the world within reach for you to control. Please know that there are tools available to understand, manage, and protect your bubble. I encourage you to find resources that work for you. Here are some that have helped me with mine.

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