What are Escape Behaviors?

Among all the struggles parents and teachers have with problem behavior, escape behaviors frequently trend toward the top of the list.  Behavior analysts commonly hear statements like: My child is constantly whining or refusing when I ask him to do things…” and “Im constantly repeating myself.  I wish my students followed instructions the first time.”  Not only are escape behaviors disruptive and challenging to manage, but they can also be tricky to overcome without the right tools and supports.  

What is escape behavior in ABA?

In Applied Behavior Analysis, we refer to escape behaviors–as the name suggests–as any behavior that primarily happens to avoid, delay, or end something unpleasant.  Some escape behaviors primarily function to stop a demand or task in progress. Sometimes the response works to prevent something from happening in the first place. Over time, the behavior is maintained or persists because it was effective at escaping or avoiding the unpleasant thing in the environment.

Examples of Escape-Maintained Problem Behaviors

Escape-maintained problem behaviors come in all forms.  What a child might use to avoid work can depend on the environment, the type or duration of the task or the amount of effort required.  To give you a sense of the wide-range of how these behaviors present themselves in children with ASD, here are some sample scenarios of escape-maintained problem behaviors:

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  • Running away when a teacher calls a student to line up for the library.
  • Pushing vegetables around the plate or throwing them on the floor at mealtime.
  • Stall tactics before bedtime.
  • Tantrum or Physical aggression when a parent tries to comb a child’s hair.
  • Talking to a friend during independent seatwork.
  • Substituting words or avoiding phrases in conversations that are difficult or are triggers for stuttering.
  • Whining about the difficulty of math problems when a parent helps with homework.

Escape behaviors and autism

Many parents and teachers wonder, why are escape behaviors so common among children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?  While all children engage in escape-maintained problem behaviors from time to time, many children with ASD have higher rates or greater intensity of escape behaviors. Escape behaviors and autism tend to go hand-in-hand because many children with ASD lack the skills and tools needed to be successful in complex situations.

Escape behaviors tend to be very effective at getting exactly what the child wants–to escape!  Even if it only takes a few seconds to address the problem behavior, that may be enough of a delay in the task to motivate a child to keep using the challenging behavior as a tool.

When are escape behaviors a problem?

Not all escape maintained behaviors are a problem.  All healthy people engage in some forms of escape and avoidance behaviors.  Consider wearing a seatbelt to avoid injury, wearing sunglasses to escape the glare of the sun, or wiping our nose with a tissue to end the unpleasant effects of a runny nose. Not all escape behaviors are problematic.

If escape maintained problem behaviors come in all forms, then, how does a parent or teacher know when it’s time to intervene?  Anytime escape behaviors prevent a child from learning a new skill, engaging socially with friends or family, or cause harm to themselves or others, plan to intervene. Given that children with autism thrive on consistency and predictability in the adults around them, as soon as you notice and address escape behaviors, the better.  Over time with consistent follow-through, a child can predict that escape behaviors won’t be useful, and they’ll try them less often.

How to Address Escape-Maintained Behaviors?

Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all solution exists to address problem behaviors maintained by escape.  When it comes to escape behaviors and autism, children often need individualized, systematic interventions to improve negative behavior patterns.  With that in mind, Applied Behavior Analysis provides parents and teachers with many different tools and strategies.  Some suggestions for treating escape-maintained behaviors with ABA interventions include:

  • Provide more frequent access to breaks at regular times. Many parents and teachers find themselves crunched for time.  Even though adults may respond well under pressure, a child may need more frequent breaks or breaks at regular intervals to be successful.
  • Teaching the child to ask for a break or help. If a child lacks the tools to ask appropriately for a break or help with challenging tasks, he or she may use problem behavior instead.  Practice and reinforce asking nicely for a break before a child becomes upset.  If a child lacks well-developed vocal communication skills, try having them point to a visual, use an ASL sign, or hand a card to an adult with the words ‘help’ or ‘break’ printed on it.
  • Use a visual schedule to cue when a break is available. Just as visuals can help ask for a break, they can also help cue a child when preferred activities or downtime is possible.  Sometimes knowing that a break is coming can reduce the probability of seeking escape or avoiding a task.
  • Shorten the task. Sometimes it’s the length of the activity or the number of steps that cause issues.  For example, if your child can get started with homework without problem behavior, but tends to get more and more frustrated as the time gets longer, it may be helpful to shorten the tasks into smaller ‘homework sessions’ with breaks in between.
  • Allow the child to choose the order of tasks. Choice can be a powerful tool for children with ASD. Try providing a child with a list or a visual schedule of the jobs to complete. Allow them to order the tasks in a way that makes sense or the way that they prefer.
  • Do several easy tasks first to build up to harder ones. Coaches and athletes have long known that a ‘warm-up’ is the best way to start a strenuous workout. The same can apply for children with ASD and difficult social tasks.  Start by practicing easy scenarios or rehearsing more manageable tasks before building up to the actual job or the most challenging social situations.
  • GIve a ..then…” behavioral contract for a preferred activity after the difficult one. Another popular strategy for escape maintained behaviors are behavioral contracts.  Using a ‘first…then…’ statement provides clear expectations for a child, and always pairs difficult tasks with more preferred or easier ones.

What’s important to note is that each of these interventions has pros and cons.  Depending on each child’s behavior pattern and the environmental triggers, it may take a combination of strategies to address the escape-behaviors.  If you have questions about your specific child’s behavior, consult a local autism professional or behavior analyst for resources and intervention support.

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Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

February 2020

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