How to Manage Escape Behaviors in Children with Autism
In psychology, an escape behavior is one that is designed to move the person experiencing the feeling away from an aversive stimulus or from what is causing negative emotions. The behavior may also eliminate the feeling of aversion or stress, even if the person does not physically move away from it.
What Are Escape Behaviors?
When working with children on the autism spectrum, escape behaviors are specifically associated with avoiding, delaying, or attempting to end a task they do not desire to do. Sometimes these escape behaviors include “avoidant behaviors,” which are primarily designed to stop a demand on them or to stop a task that is in progress. Occasionally, the escape behavior stops a potential task from beginning in the first place.
Everyone engages in an escape behavior, but children with autism may express this desire for escapism in ways that are disruptive, difficult to understand, or even destructive. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy can help you find ways to understand the escape behavior and support your child in expressing their needs.
Examples of escape behaviors include:
- Running away when you call your child to dinner.
- Throwing food on the floor or avoiding eating certain foods.
- Stalling before bedtime, including asking for a glass of water, needing more time with you, needing to go to the bathroom, and so on.
- Throwing tantrums when you attempt to do something they do not want to do, such as brushing their hair or putting on their shoes.
- Lashing out physically at you or at themselves when you try to get them to do something, such as brushing their teeth.
- Talking in class in a way that is disruptive, such as talking to classmates during independent class time.
- Substituting words or phrases for those that trip them up, make them stutter, or make it difficult to have a conversation.
- Whining about the difficulty of homework problems or refusing to do homework.
What Do Escape Behaviors Mean?
Many view children on the autism spectrum as having more frequent and more intense escape behaviors. Therapists now acknowledge that escape behaviors arise from struggles with communication and understanding social cues. Children with autism do not have the same tools as their neurotypical peers to express themselves when they feel stressed.
Escape behaviors can indicate that your child needs support. For example, if they repeatedly throw a temper tantrum when you sit them down to do homework, they may need a different homework schedule. Perhaps they need to start with a more enjoyable subject, or they need to break up homework into smaller chunks.
How Can You Help Overcome Escape Behaviors?
You can reduce these behaviors by considering their root cause and working with the child to support their needs. Some recommendations for helping your child manage and reduce escape behaviors include:
Providing more frequent breaks. Parents, teachers, therapists, and other caregivers want the child to learn how to focus on one task at a time, but neurodivergent children, including those on the autism spectrum, may need to take more frequent or longer breaks to help them complete tasks. This is especially true of tasks that are mentally taxing, such as homework assignments.
Shortening tasks. Break up bigger tasks into smaller chunks, so they do not seem overwhelming. For example, getting ready for school is one large task, but it can be broken down into steps that are easier to follow: brush your teeth, put on your shoes, pack your backpack, and so on.
Using a visual schedule. Therapists and teachers often use visual charts or schedules to help children on the autism spectrum understand what to expect during each session, coursework, or treatment plan. This includes noting when breaks can happen and adjusting those as needed.
Allowing the child to choose task order. Your child may resist homework, chores, or other tasks because they do not like the first item on the list, so they do not want to complete the entire process. Ask them for input on what they want to do first. For example, if they struggle with English but enjoy math, help them start homework time with math first.
Completing smaller, easier tasks first and building up to larger ones. Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement, and that can include getting the child to do a few small tasks first to show them that starting something feels good.
Offering choices. If your child struggles to express their needs, offer them two options, such as, “Would you like to start with your language arts or your social studies homework?” This empowers the child to express wants or needs rather than rejecting what you present and attempting to escape.
Offering an “if-then” contract. Many children, especially children on the autism spectrum, respond well to clear rewards in a verbal contract. For example, you can say, “If you finish your math homework, you can spend one hour playing a video game.”
ABA Therapy Can Help You & Your Child With Escape Behaviors
Children on the autism spectrum may feel less control over their lives and worry about changes they cannot predict or control because of it. Some of this stems from struggles to understand social cues and problems with communication, both expressing themselves and understanding others’ expressions. This frustration and fear can lead to escape behaviors because the child does not know what else to do to release themselves from unpleasant feelings.
Escape behaviors can make it difficult for a child on the autism spectrum to learn a new task or skill, which can make progress in ABA therapy more challenging. But ABA therapy can teach communication skills early, helping you identify escape behaviors in your child so you can adjust to their needs as much as possible.
Escape Behavior. American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology.
Strategies to Assist in Decreasing Escape Maintained Behaviors in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. (June 2017). California State University, San Bernardino.
Interventions to Reduce Escape and Avoidant Behaviors in Individuals with Autism. (January 2009). Columbia University Medical Center.
Autism and Challenging Behaviors: Strategies and Support. Autism Speaks.
Reducing Escape-Maintained Challenging Behavior in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder through Visual Activity Schedule and Instructional Choice. (March 2020). Education and Treatment of Children.