BOLTING – AUTISTIC SUDDEN FLIGHT EXPLAINED
That’s what people call it when an autistic person suddenly takes off and runs away.
Many outside observers of bolting consider it a “problem behavior” or “challenging behavior”. That’s in part because it can be dangerous and difficult to handle as a caregiver. The bolting person may have no danger awareness or sense of self-preservation. They may run, regardless of what they may be running into. They may run red lights, into traffic, fall into a body of water, fall off high places, get lost, or run from authorities like the police.
Many outside observers of bolting also consider it an “inappropriate” and “maladaptive” behavior. That’s because unaffected observers don’t experience and thus usually can’t comprehend the valid reason for the person bolting. They think it’s the wrong reaction to the situation. Many outside observers, especially behaviorists, believe that bolting is a willful behavior, goal-oriented, done for attention or to manipulate.
The problem with the current dominant narrative regarding bolting is that it comes from non-affected parties. Usually non-autistic parents of autistic children, or non-autistic professionals. That’s a problem because people who don’t experience bolting themselves cannot possibly have complete insight into the how and why. Consequently, they also cannot know how to properly support and help.
So let’s take an inside look at bolting!
WHAT IS BOLTING REALLY?
Bolting is an instinctive sudden flight phenomenon. It is an involuntary reaction to a trigger – much like a meltdown.
According to current research, autistic people’s brains are more connected than non-autistic brains. They constantly process more, and more intensely and chaotically than non-autistic brains. This means that input most non-autistic people process without any problems can be too much for autistic brains. This, in turn, means that our brains sometimes can’t handle certain input and react with things like bolting – while non-autistic’s brains usually don’t.
Bolting may seem inappropriate or invalid to people who don’t experience it. But for autistic people who do, it is a natural, instinctive, valid, justified reaction to a trigger. That doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous. It certainly can be.
While I talk specifically about autistic bolting in this piece, autistic people are not the only people who experience this kind of sudden flight phenomenon so do keep that in mind when discussing these experiences.
WHAT TRIGGERS BOLTING?
While bolting may seem completely unexpected, unforeseeable, and unpreventable to an outside observer, with enough understanding it often is none of those things.
Every autistic person who bolts has their triggers.
If one knows a person’s triggers, they may be avoidable. If unavoidable, a bolting episode may at least be foreseeable, and support and safety measures can be taken accordingly.
This means that with enough awareness, accommodation, and support, bolting doesn’t have to be this terrifying monster that it is for many caregivers of autistic people.
Knowing one’s triggers, how to prevent them, and how to stay safe while bolting can also help autistic people themselves. It can allow us to accommodate our needs and self-advocate. We can feel and be safer. It can lead to more autonomy and agency. It can lead to less shame, blame, guilt, and stigma.
WHAT DOES BOLTING FEEL LIKE?
It is a little difficult for me to explain what bolting feels like because I am not consciously aware while it happens – only before and after.
I can sometimes consciously feel the bolting coming. It feels like a bubbling building of energy in my body that threatens to engulf me, swallow me and my consciousness up and wash me away like a tsunami.
Right before I bolt, I feel this pulling urge inside my body. It’s largely in my chest and it pulls me, pulls me, pulls me away. It also feels like I’m going to explode. Then I can’t think anymore. I don’t have a consciousness anymore.
Then I run. Because I am not aware that I am running, this is from what other people have told me. I seem to not consciously hear anything because I don’t react to people yelling at me. I seem to not consciously see anything because I run, regardless of what’s in front of me. It seems that I don’t have any danger awareness or sense of self-preservation anymore because I have run into the road before. I have also run into walls or cars, or whatever else was in my way.
Then at some point, it’s over and I am conscious again. I see, hear, notice my surroundings, and I stop running. There are usually some moments up to some minutes of confusion because I don’t know where I am and how I got there. I have gotten lost before because I bolted to somewhere I didn’t recognize. Then I try to orient myself. I don’t like people staring at me, it makes me feel very unsafe. I don’t have any recollection of the bolting itself. After bolting, I just want to go home and hide.
WHAT CAN HELP TO PREVENT BOLTING?
You can’t prevent bolting by setting up behavioral rules because bolting is not a voluntary, controlled behavior. During a bolting episode, the ability to follow rules and use skills like “Stop, wait for green, cross.” or “Don’t leave my side.” is impaired.
Don’t (mis)treat bolting as a behavioral issue. Don’t try to “fix” it with behavioral rules and approaches. Instead, let’s treat bolting as the neurological/nervous system event that it is:
Bolting is caused by a trigger. So to prevent bolting, understand the person’s triggers and avoid them as much as possible.
Understand, avoid, accommodate.
WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE BOLTS?
Prevention is great – if it works. But because 100% prevention is rarely ever possible in life, let’s take a look at what to do when someone does bolt.
First of all:
People don’t bolt deliberately. They don’t do it to get attention, to manipulate, to achieve something, or whatever else behaviorists and other professionals may want you to believe. It happens to people. Thus, you are allowed to (and should) simply forget about behaviorist concepts like “withholding attention” or “not reinforcing the behavior”.
So what should you do when you are with someone who suddenly bolts?
1. Stay calm.
2. Keep the bolting person safe.
What exactly this entails depends on the person, the trigger, and the situation and environment in which the bolting occurs.
Some autistic people don’t consciously process anything anymore when bolting, so interacting with them is pointless.
Other autistic people may benefit from someone yelling a verbal prompt to pull their brain out of the instinctive reaction.
One autistic person may benefit from having someone grab them.
For another, grabbing them may just make things worse.
I know some autistic people who like wearing a harness and be held that way.
For other autistic people that is a traumatic violation of their bodily autonomy.
So, unfortunately, there is no one solution that will work for everyone. What helps one person may be harmful for another. The key is respecting the autistic person’s autonomy, agency, and informed consent. Work together to find something that works.
It can be a huge help to get input from other autistic people. Be wary of advice from people who aren’t themselves autistic and experience bolting. They often lack crucial insight to properly address the issue.
A WORD ON “BOLTING” VERSUS “ELOPING”
Some people use the terms “bolting” and “eloping” interchangeably. Personally, I don’t like the term “eloping” because that term’s use in everyday speech implies choice, a voluntary action. Bolting on the other hand underlines the instinctive, involuntary nature of this phenomenon well in my opinion.
A WORD ON “BOLTING” VERSUS “WANDERING”
Wandering is another phenomenon a lot of autistic people experience a lot. It is related to bolting but not the same thing. For me, wandering is more akin to what some call “elopement”. However, I much prefer the term “wandering” because it better fits that experience. Thus I don’t use the term “eloping” at all – unless when referring to eloping lovers.
- CO-OCCURRING CONDITIONS
- PUBLIC STATEMENTS