Escape Routes & The Importance Of Being In Control

By Ronnie Pinder, Coach & Peer Mentor at The Retreat Clinics

 There is a strategy that can help many autistic people and that is always planning your escape routes in advance and therefore making you feel in more control of a situation that may otherwise cause anxiety.

Escape routes can be literal but they don’t have to be. An example of a literal escape route is scanning a building we’ve not been in before for the exits. How can I get out of here in the quickest time possible without drawing too much attention to myself? Many of us who are autistic have abandoned shopping trollies in supermarkets due to feeling overwhelmed, often from too much sensory input. I have supported many people who don’t realise that they’re planning escape routes when entering a new and unfamiliar room, but I often see them scanning the room for exits and very carefully choosing which chair to sit on.

For an example of a less obvious escape route, I’ll use a personal experience. For many years before my own diagnosis, I couldn’t figure out why I was so scared of motorways. It was only after finding out I was autistic and in turn discovering explanations for some of my experiences, that I realised why. As soon as I’m on the slip road for the motorway I would always feel panicked and my anxiety levels would skyrocket. It made no difference whether I was the driver or the passenger and I knew that it wasn’t due to the speeds or the traffic. What was actually causing my distress was the taking away of my escape routes and therefore my control of the situation. I knew that if, for any reason, I felt anxious or distressed I was trapped, at least until the next junction. I couldn’t escape and this only heightened the anxiety. If I was on any other type of road, I knew that at any time I could simply pull over and get out of the car. I could go for a walk or stretch my legs, whatever I needed to do. However, I never had to do this on any other type of road, simply because I had my escape route and therefore felt more in control. It was enough just knowing that I had the option, that I never feel overwhelmed enough to use it. Escape routes can help in so many different aspects of our lives as they help us with that feeling of being in control.

Let’s look at another scenario. Assuming you’ve disclosed that you’re autistic and are open about being autistic, let’s imagine you’ve been invited to  a wedding. For many of us, that could fill us with dread. Not only is there the social aspect to think about but also the sensory input and the fatigue we’re highly likely to experience for some time following the event. You may not want to decline the invitation as it’s somebody you’re close to so a good option would be to start planning your escape routes. You could have a conversation with the person who invited you, thanking them for the invitation but explaining that you may need at times to leave for a while if it becomes too much to cope with. You can explain that if they notice you leaving to realise that you’re okay and just taking some time out to reregulate. The vast majority of people will be very understanding and appreciate you explaining. This then gives you your escape route. You now know that at any time, you can simply leave until you feel able to return, without the need to feel embarrassed or hoping that nobody notices. Having your escape route also lessons the chances of having to leave – it’s sometimes enough just knowing you can. You may be thinking that in your circumstances, the other person has no knowledge of autism and you’re worried they’ll just think you’re being difficult. If that applies to you, then you can try this. When having the discussion with them, every time you would say “I”, simply change it to “autistic people”. Instead of the conversation perhaps being something like “I struggle with social settings and I may need to leave at times for a while” it will instead be “many autistic people struggle with social settings and may need to leave at times for a while”. By making this simple change, the other person is far more likely to understand that this is a difficulty for many autistic people rather than think it’s a difficulty unique to you.


If you have an autistic family member, friend or colleague, try to keep in mind the reasons why many of us need to feel in control of everything. We’re not trying to be controlling, we’re not becoming distressed at last minute changes to plans for no reason and we’re definitely not trying to be difficult. We’re simply trying our best to navigate a world that isn’t designed for us.