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Flight Reactions in Autism: Recognize the Quiet Suffering

In the most recent post, we discussed fight reactions in autism. Today's post is about flight reactions.

The individual with autism is very likely to be less resilient for daily experiences than her neurotypical peers. When she is overwhelmed, she may respond with a flight reaction.

Because the suffering in a flight reaction is silent, it is very often missed or misunderstood. Perhaps the person is viewed by others as depressed, uninterested, quiet, shy, or only concerned with herself rather than others.


1. Leaving

A flight reaction may look like leaving: "I'm leaving this conversation," "I'm leaving this relationships," "I'm leaving the building," or "I'm leaving to go live with Uncle Joe in New York."

2. Quitting

A flight reaction may look like quitting: "I'm quitting this new task because I'm not mastering it," "I'm quitting this game because I'm losing," or "I'm quitting this job (or school program)."

3. Hiding

A flight reaction may look like hiding: "I'm hiding under the covers," "I'm not looking you in the eyes," "I'm not returning your calls," or "I'm not answering the door."


When these behaviors occur, they are CLUES that the individual is overwhelmed. She may not be able to verbalize that she is overwhelmed or why, but the behavior itself is the revelation of her dysregulated state.

The flight has nothing to do with her character, her feelings about you, or her motivation.


1. Don't Chase

Resist the urge to chase down the person who is leaving. The chasing itself can feel very intense, and if the person is already overwhelmed to the extent of leaving, the chase could escalate her reaction into a fight reaction.

2. Help the Individual Recognize His/Her Reaction

The individual is unlikely to have developed the self-knowledge to know why she has reacted with flight. Once you recognize the reaction, you might say (after giving the person space to regroup), "You really felt overwhelmed back there. I wonder what your system needs to feel more centered" OR "I wonder if starting high school and not being able to sleep have created a pretty tough situation right now."

3. Strategies

Use strategies rather than policing. Do not rely on policing ("Do this" or "Don't do that"). Do not rely on consequences. Instead, help the person develop strategies. "I wonder if your body and mind would feel better after a long hot bath" or "Do you think you might feel better under the weighted blanket?"

Acknowledge that the individual's sense of groundedness and calm is important. Introduce the concept that strategy is the best way to calm.

Recognize the flight reaction and understand it is a silent sign of suffering.

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