top of page

Escape-maintained behavior - what is that?

Updated: Jan 5

Has your child ever screamed to get out of eating a new food?

Does your child have a tantrum when you're at the shop and miraculously stop as soon as you leave?

Do you immediately hang up the phone when you realize you're being scammed?

What do these behaviors have in common?

They are all escape-maintained behaviors.

This week we will explain what escape-maintained behaviors are and what do they serve the individual (what the function is). Stay tuned for next week when we will share top tips to reduce the escape maintained behaviors.

First, let's quickly recap that when we are talking about behaviors, they are anything that we do - 'good' or 'bad'. Screaming, running, drinking, whistling, pouring a coffee, jumping and hanging up the phone. We can see, or hear and measure these events so we consider them to be behaviors.

Escape-maintained behaviors are behaviors that occur to get away from (escape) something we don't want or don't like. When the behavior works, you (or your child) will continue to engage in that behavior and it is therefore being reinforced. The behavior will be maintained or increase in the future. When I refer to reinforcement, this is occurring when (and only when) a behavior increases in the future.

There are many situations where we use behaviors to escape events or situations. Think about that annoying beeping noise when you get in the car. It doesn't stop until you put your seatbelt on. So, you put your seatbelt on to escape and stop the annoying noise.

It is very common for neurodivergent children with autism and ADHD to display aggressive or tantrum behaviors to escape demands because the things they have tried in the past haven't worked. In a lot of situations, our children haven't learnt the appropriate skill to escape demands or they have tried to use the appropriate behavior, but it didn't get the outcome they wanted, so they tried something more intense.

Autism and ADHD can mean regulating emotions and controlling impulses is particularly challenging. This can add to the explosive nature of your child's behavior when it comes to doing something they don't want to do.

Children with autism, ADHD or sensory disorder sometimes experience the world differently. Social situations can be anxiety provoking, over-stimulating and create sensory overload. It's important to remember that the screaming, crying, swearing and aggression aren't a result of your child intentionally being disobedient or trying to upset you. Rather, they are a way for your child to avoid what they don't want. They are using these behaviors because at some point in time they were effective. In addition, if the child doesn't get what they want the behaviors can become a coping mechanism to manage overwhelming emotions.

A common example of an escape-maintained behavior would be when a child wants to avoid working on a task in the classroom and starts to disrupt others. The teacher might have sent her out of the classroom in the past and she is hoping for the same result. Being sent out of the classroom is a positive outcome for the child as she succeeds to avoid the less-preferred task. The behavior of being disruptive is reinforced by allowing her to leave the classroom and not completing the task.

Children with autism might not have the skills to deal with challenging social situations. If they don't know how to communicate appropriately, they will resort to what has worked in the past. They might not know how to say "No" appropriately.

Why is it important to address these behaviors? Because they may interfere in the children's learning and social life. By giving our children the appropriate skills in life, they have the choice as to how and when to use them. Without the skills, they don't have the choice. This is why teaching and reinforcing positive skills is essential to enable our children to reach their full potential!

Our neurodivergent children might display various behaviors to escape undesirable situations.

Examples of escape-maintained behaviors

Withdrawal: A child with autism might isolate themself from a social situation when they feel overwhelmed or over-stimulated. That way, they remove themself from the social demands, social interactions and stimuli. They avoid interactions that cause them anxiety. A child might not respond to a question or instruction. Perhaps they become fixated on something they like, go hide in their bedroom or under a blanket.

Young girl sitting alone in the stairs using a tablet

Stimming: Self-stimulatory behaviors are repetitive actions that children engage in, usually because they feel good. In the early years, this is a developmental stage that children go through when they are experimenting and learning from their environment. One reason for some children to continue to stim is to avoid demands or sensory stimuli such as loud noises, busy environments, non-preferred images etc. In some situations it can be helpful for your child to stim to remain calm and cope with a situation (such as the example below)

Instagram post about stimming display at the airport for children to self-regulate

Mutism: Often coming from a restricted verbal communication capacity, children might use mutism to avoid or escape communication demands and undesired social interactions.

Meltdowns: For children with autism, tantrums and aggression are a highly effective response to use to avoid non-preferred demands. These behaviors are particularly effective when you are out in public as I'm sure you can related to. Most of us feel that the sooner we can stop our child's inappropriate public behaviors, the better. But, this is not always the best for reducing meltdowns in the future.

How do you reduce or stop these behaviors?

There are three (3) key strategies that I will delve into deeper next week:

  1. Prepare your child for what will be occurring.

  2. Functional Communication Training - this involves teaching your children how to appropriately avoid the demand.

  3. Tolerance Training - this involves teaching your child to cope with difficult situations, follow less-preferred instructions and tolerate non-preferred tasks.

It is important to understand neurodiverse children have unique needs, preferences and strengths. Being conscious of sensory sensitivities and having a way to clearly communicate will help preventing undesirable situations for both you and your child.

If your children exhibits escape-maintained behaviors and you would like to discuss strategies with our Board Certified Behavior Analyst, book your Complimentary Call today!

To go deeper with this topic, the highly informative, accessible and fun podcast ABA Inside Track addresses the topic: ABA Inside Track - Episode 261 - Strategies for Addressing Escape-Maintained Behavior

Here is a peer-reviewed article about the topic: Geiger, K.B., Carr, J.E., & LeBlanc, L.A. (2010). Function-based treatments for escape-maintained problem behavior: A treatment-selection model for practicing behavior analysts. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 3, 22-32. ( doi: 10.1007/BF03391755


bottom of page