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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:

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:

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.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

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

February 2020

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