Behavior Analytic Approaches to Assessment and Intervention for Sex Offenders with Intellectual Disabilities

  • Timothy R. VollmerEmail author
  • P. Raymond Joslyn
  • Jorge R. Reyes
  • Stephen F. Walker


Our culture is challenged by the ethics and practicality of assessing and intervening with sex offenders in general, and these challenges are compounded when the offender has an intellectually disability (ID). Most commonly, offenders with ID are adjudicated incompetent to stand trial and, therefore, are not convicted of the crime (in a sense, then, offender may not even be the correct term, but it is used here to conform with common usage). The treatment of offenders with ID presents a unique challenge because on the one hand it is incumbent upon professionals to protect members of the community at large but on the other hand the individual with ID is afforded basic human rights, which may include freedom of movement within the community at large. In this chapter we focus primarily on individuals with ID who are presumed (or known) to have offended toward children. We will first cover historical and contemporary approaches to assessment and treatment. Next, we will describe specific ethical issues that arise in working with the ID population. Finally, we will present some proposed future directions for work in the area of sex offenders with ID.


Applied behavior analysis Sex offender Ethics Behavioral assessment Intervention 


  1. American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from
  2. Armstrong, G. S., & Freeman, B. C. (2011). Examining GPS monitoring alerts triggered by sex offenders: The divergence of legislative goals and practical application in community corrections. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39, 175–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bannerman, D. J., Sheldon, J. B., Sherman, J. A., & Harchik, A. E. (1990). Balancing the right to habilitation with the right to personal liberties: The rights of people with developmental disabilities to eat too many doughnuts and take a nap. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23(1), 79–89.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barbaree, H. E. and Marshall, W. L. (1988), Deviant sexual arousal, offense history, and demographic variables as predictors of reoffense among child molesters. Behav. Sci. Law, 6: 267-280. doi:10.1002/bsl.2370060209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barbaree, H. E., & Marshall, W. L. (1998). Treatment of the sexual offender. In R. M. Wettstein (Ed.), Treatment of offenders with mental disorders (pp. 265–328). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  6. Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2016). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Retrieved from
  7. Callahan, E. J., & Leitenberg, H. (1973). Aversion therapy for sexual deviation: Contingent shock and covert sensitization. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 81(1), 60–73.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Camilleri, J. A., & Quinsey, V. L. (2011). Appraising the risk of sexual and violent recidivism among intellectually disabled offenders. Psychology, Crime & Law, 17, 59–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Conrad, S. R., & Wincze, J. P. (1976). Orgasmic reconditioning: A controlled study of its effects upon the sexual arousal and behavior of adult male homosexuals. Behavior Therapy, 7(2), 155–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Day, K. (1994). Male mentally handicapped sex offenders. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 165(5), 630–639.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dennis, E., Rouleau, J., Renaud, P., Nolet, K., & Saumur, C. (2014). A pilot development of virtual stimuli depicting affective dispositions for penile plethysmography assessment of sex offenders. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 23(3), 200–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Earls, C. M., & Castonguay, L. G. (1989). The evaluation of olfactory aversion for a bisexual pedophile with a single-case multiple baseline design. Behavior Therapy, 20(1), 137–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fernandez, Y. M., Shingler, J., & Marshall, W. L. (2006). Putting ‘behavior’ back into the cognitive-behavioral treatment of sexual offenders. In W. L. Marshall, Y. M. Fernandez, L. E. Marshall, & G. A. Serran (Eds.), Sexual offender treatment: Controversial issues (pp. 211–224). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  14. Fisher, W., Piazza, C. C., Bowman, L. G., Hagopian, L. P., Owens, J. C., & Slevin, I. (1992). A comparison of two approaches for identifying reinforcers for persons with severe and profound disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25(2), 491–498.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Foote, W. E., & Laws, D. R. (1981). A daily alternation procedure for orgasmic reconditioning with a pedophile. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 12(3), 267–273.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hanson, R. K., & Bussiere, M. T. (1998). Predicting relapse: A meta-analysis of sexual offender recidivism studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66(2), 348–362.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hanson, R. K., & Morton-Bourgon, K. (2004). Predictors of sexual recidivism: An updated meta-analysis. (Cat. No.: PS3-1/2004-2E-PDF). Public Works and Government Services Canada. ISBN: 0-662-36397-3.Google Scholar
  18. Howes, R. J. (1995). A survey of plethysmographic assessment in North America. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 7(1), 9–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Iwata, B. A., Dorsey, M. F., Slifer, K. J., Bauman, K. E., & Richman, G. (1994). Toward a functional analysis of self-injury. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 197–209. (Reprinted from Analysis and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities, 2, 3–20, 1982).PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Klimecki, M. R., Jenkinson, J., & Wilson, L. (1994). A study of recidivism among offenders with an intellectual disability. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Developmental Disabilities, 19, 209–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Launay, G. (1999). The phallometric measurement of sex offenders: An update. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 9(3), 254–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Laws, D. R. (2009). Penile plethysmography: Strengths, limitations, innovations. In D. Thornton & D. R. Laws (Eds.), Cognitive approaches to the assessment of sexual interest in sexual offenders (pp. 7–29). New York: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Laws, D. R., & Gress, C. L. Z. (2004). Seeing things differently: The viewing time alternative to penile plethysmography. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 9, 183–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Laws, D. R., & Holmen, M. L. (1978). Sexual response faking by pedophiles. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 5(4), 343–356.Google Scholar
  25. Laws, D. R., & Rubin, H. B. (1969). Instructional control of an autonomic sexual response. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2(2), 93–99.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lindsay, W. R. (2002). Research and literature on sex offenders with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 46(Suppl 1), 74–85.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Marquis, J. N. (1970). Orgasmic reconditioning: Changing sexual object choice through controlling masturbation fantasies. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 1(4), 263–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Marshall, W. L., & Fernandez, Y. M. (2003). Phallometric testing with sexual offenders: Theory, research, and practice. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.Google Scholar
  29. Marshall, W. L., & Laws, D. R. (2003). A brief history of behavioral and cognitive behavioral approaches to sexual offender treatment: Part 2. The modern era. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 15(2), 93–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mesler, J. L., Anderson, G., & Calkins, C. (2016). Sex offender policy and prevention. In M. K. Miller & B. H. Bornstein (Eds.), Advances in psychology and law (pp. 217–248). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Miltenberger, R. G. (2004). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  32. Murphy, W. D., & Barbaree, H. E. (1994). Assessments of sex offenders by measures of erectile response: Psychometric properties and decision making. Brandon, VT: The Safer Society Press.Google Scholar
  33. Murphy, W. D., Coleman, E. M., & Haynes, M. R. (1983). Treatment and evaluation issues with the mentally retarded sex offender. In J. G. Greer & I. R. Stuart (Eds.), The sexual aggressor: Current perspectives on treatment (pp. 22–41). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.Google Scholar
  34. O’Donohue, W., & Letourneau, E. (1992). The psychometric properties of the penile tumescence assessment of child molesters. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 14(2), 123–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Quinsey, V. L., Chaplin, T. C., & Carrigan, W. F. (1980). Biofeedback and signaled punishment in the modification of inappropriate sexual age preferences. Behavior Therapy, 11(4), 567–576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Quinsey, V. L., & Earls, C. M. (1990). The modification of sexual preferences. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, & H. E. Barbaree (Eds.), Handbook of sexual assault: Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender. Applied clinical psychology (pp. 279–295). New York: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rea, J. A., DeBriere, T., Butler, K., & Saunders, K. J. (1998). An analysis of four sexual offenders’ arousal in the natural environment through the use of a portable penile plethysmograph. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 10(3), 239–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Renaud, P., Chartier, S., Rouleau, J. L., Proulx, J., Trottier, D., Bradford, J. P., et al. (2009). Gaze behavior nonlinear dynamics assessed in virtual immersion as a diagnostic index of sexual deviancy: Preliminary results. Journal of Virtual Reality and Broadcasting, 6(3) urn:nbn:de:0009-6-17538Google Scholar
  39. Renaud, P., Proulx, P., Rouleau, J.-L., Bouchard, S., Madrigrano, G., Bradford, J., et al. (2005). The recording of observational behaviors in virtual immersion: A new research and clinical tool to address the problem of sexual preferences with paraphiliacs. Annual Review of Cybertherapy and Telemedicine, 3, 85–92.Google Scholar
  40. Renaud, P., Rouleau, J. L., Granger, L., Barsetti, I., & Bouchard, S. (2002). Measuring sexual preferences in virtual reality: A pilot study. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 5(1), 1–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Renaud, P., Rouleau, J.-L., Proulx, J., Trottier, D., Goyette, M., Bradford, J. P., et al. (2010). Virtual characters designed for forensic assessment and rehabilitation of sex offenders: Standardized and made-to-measure. Journal of Virtual Reality and Broadcasting, 7(5) urn:nbn:de:0009-6-26466Google Scholar
  42. Renaud, P., Trottier, D., Rouleau, J.-L., Goyette, M., Saumur, C., Boukhalfi, T., et al. (2014). Using immersive virtual reality and anatomically correct computer-generated characters in the forensic assessment of deviant sexual preferences. Virtual Reality, 18(1), 37–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Renzema, M., & Mayo-Wilson, E. (2005). Can electronic monitoring reduce crime for moderate to high-risk offenders? Journal of Experimental Criminology, 1(2), 215–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Reyes, J. R. (2009). Assessment of sex offenders with developmental disabilities. (Doctoral Dissertation). Dissertation Abstracts International. (UMI No. 3334500).Google Scholar
  45. Reyes, J. R., Vollmer, T. R., & Hall, A. (2011a). Replications and extensions in arousal assessment for sex offenders with developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(2), 369–373.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Reyes, J. R., Vollmer, T. R., & Hall, A. (2011b). The influence of presession factors in the assessment of deviant arousal. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(4), 707–717.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Reyes, J. R., Vollmer, T. R., & Hall, A. (2017). Comparison of arousal and preference assessment outcomes for sex offenders with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 50(1), 27–37.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Reyes, J. R., Vollmer, T. R., Sloman, K. N., Hall, A., Reed, R., Jansen, G., et al. (2006). Assessment of deviant arousal in adult male sex offenders with developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39(2), 173–188.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Rosenthal, T. L. (1973). Response-contingent versus fixed punishment in aversion conditioning of pedophilia: A case study. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 156(6), 440–443.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. United States Department of Justice. (2014). Sex offender management assessment and planning initiative. Retrieved from:
  51. Vollmer, T. R., Reyes, J. R., & Walker, S. F. (2012). Behavioral assessment and Intervention for sex offenders with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In J. Luiselli (Ed.), The handbook of high-risk challenging behaviors: Assessment and intervention. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.Google Scholar
  52. Walker, S. F. (2013). The Influence of secondary stimulus characteristics in the assessment of sexual offenders diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. (Doctoral dissertation). Proquest Dissertations Publishing. (UMI No. 3583603).Google Scholar
  53. Walker, S. F., Joslyn, P. R., Vollmer, T. R., & Hall, A. (2014). Differential suppression of arousal by sex offenders with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47(3), 639–644.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wilcox, D. T. (2004). Treatment of intellectually disabled individuals who have committed sexual offences: A review of the literature. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 10(1), 85–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wyatt v. Stickney, 325 F. Supp. 781. (M.D. Ala. 1971).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Timothy R. Vollmer
    • 1
    Email author
  • P. Raymond Joslyn
    • 1
  • Jorge R. Reyes
    • 2
  • Stephen F. Walker
    • 3
  1. 1.University of FloridaGainesvilleUSA
  2. 2.Westfield State UniversityWestfieldUSA
  3. 3.Aurora UniversityAuroraUSA

Personalised recommendations