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ABA can be applied to any behavioral issue.

Psychotic behavior and ABA? Although the practice of ABA currently focuses on autism a great deal, there is a rich history of using ABA in the treatment of disorders like schizophrenia. Perhaps the current emphasis on autism is too much.

ABA is sometimes incorrectly defined as a behavioral treatment for autism. As we all know, ABA can be applied to any behavioral issue including human and non-human animal behavior, and to typical and unusual behavior. Yet, it is easy to assume that psychosis is a biologically determined, private behavior that is unamenable to assessment and treatment using ABA: Nonsense!

There’s a long history of ABA and psychotic behavior…

Any of us who can remember (or read about) the origins of ABA know that Skinner and Lindsley worked with individuals on the back wards of psychiatric institutions in the 1950s and 1960s and that this work resulted in both individual informal functional assessments and behavioral treatment procedures and group interventions such as the token economy and social skills training for individuals with schizophrenia.

Somewhere along the way schizophrenia has been left behind to cause some people to refer to it as the forgotten stepchild of behavior therapy. In the 1980’s work on skills training, including social and vocational, was a vigorous area of research and practice. As behavior therapy became cognitive behavior therapy and clinical psychologists and other therapists retreated from the real world to their offices to talk to people allegedly about the real world, and as big pharma was super successful in promoting schizophrenia as an illness to be treated with drugs, ABA and various other therapies left people with schizophrenia behind.

Yet, there are some reasons for optimism that ABA has something to offer individuals with schizophrenia. First, drugs have not delivered on their promise: Individual vary tremendously in their response to pharmacological treatment; the new antipsychotics of the 1990s that were marketed as free of side-effects now seem to be full of side effects and are potentially quite dangerous to some individuals, and pharmacological treatment may suppress the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, but is not good at improving social skills deficits or getting people jobs and friends. In addition, there are now a small group of papers that have conducted functional assessments and assessments with individuals with psychosis and intellectual disabilities and/or autism which indicate that psychotic behavior is often highly influenced by the environment and that function-based ABA treatments can be quite successful. And, as ever, ABA has much to offer all kinds of people by maximizing the skills they have and teaching new important skills.


Professor Peter Sturmey, resident speaker at ABAC, Inc., joins us on December 19, 2019, for a live webinar on psychosis in autistic individuals/those diagnosed with autism. We hope you will join us- Learn More