Antisocial Personality Disorder probably isn’t something you’ve heard of before. That’s because most people associate people who have this disorder with the terms “psychopath” or “sociopath.” Yes, when we talk about someone being a psychopath (think Ted Bundy), what we’re actually talking about is Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Although psychopathy and sociopathy are not synonymous with Antisocial Personality Disorder, they all fall in the same category.

Contrary to what the name of APD might cause you to believe, however, APD isn’t a label that should be placed on people merely for being introverted, socially anxious, or uncomfortable around other people. APD is a disorder characterized by a strong disregard for the feelings, wellbeing, or interests of other people. It’s currently categorized as a disruptive behavior disorder (or a type of conduct disorder) by mental health professionals. People who have this disorder often act in an impulsive, narcissistic manner, seeking what gives them personal pleasure, regardless of the affect their choices might have on others.

Researchers believe that APD is caused by a combination of issues in both a person’s brain as well as his/her environment. Much like other behavioral disorders, there are strong connections between environmental influences and the occurrence of the disorder. But environment isn’t the only factor. Two people raised in identical situations could develop completely different personalities because of the impact genetics has on them.

In disorders such as APD, genetics play a major role in the causation of the disorder. This means that people can be predisposed (or genetically more likely) to develop certain conditions.

Antisocial Personality Disorder differs from other behavioral/conduct disorders in that it isn’t usually diagnosed in childhood. Oppositional Defiant Disorder, for example, is diagnosed in around 5% of children in the US, while a diagnosis of APD in childhood is virtually unheard of. Generally, until a child reaches the teenage years, all of the symptoms associated with APD are diagnosed as Conduct Disorder instead. The two diagnoses are not synonymous–much like how APD and psychopathy are not synonymous– but they do have many overlapping symptoms.

One of the main reasons APD isn’t diagnosed until adulthood is because mental health professionals need to see a certain amount of longevity and severity of symptoms before labeling the symptoms as APD. Without the proof of both time and intensity, it would be easy to misdiagnose the disorder. It’s also been proven that puberty affects chemical processes in the brain so many psychiatrists prefer to see how someone behaves once that is over before diagnosing APD.

So the big question we’re all wondering is… can children actually have Antisocial Personality Disorder from a young age? And if they do, how do we see it for what it is? What does it look like? How do we interact with them in effective ways as teachers, parents, and family members? How do we seek help without trying to diagnose a child on our own? How do we prevent the disorder from becoming more severe when we can’t even be sure of exactly what it is during a child’s early years?

It’s important to understand that assumptions can’t be made about a child’s mental functioning without enlisting the help of a professional (or several of them). There’s a reason people have to earn high degrees in order to become psychiatrists, counselors, therapists, and medical doctors. They need to be the ones providing diagnoses and making treatment plans, however, it is crucial that we, as parents and teachers, bring accurate information to the table so the professionals can make effective decisions.

It’s also important to know that children can have Antisocial Personality Disorder in childhood, but even if the disorder is incorrectly diagnosed for a while, the treatment plan will still most likely look very similar. Behavior modification approaches are basically the same for Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder, with a few subtle variations. Medicinal and therapeutic intervention plans for all of those disorders would also closely resemble one another. Even without a perfectly accurate diagnosis, a child who had APD would still receive a great deal of help if they were provided services for CD or ODD instead.

Kids who will grow up to be diagnosed with APD often have exhibit the following behaviors in childhood:

– Patterns of manipulation – Frequent lying – Lack of concern for others – Lack of remorse for their actions – Narcissistic thinking – Impulsivity – Selfish motives – Inability to emotionally connect – Extreme risk taking – Desire to interact with people who can offer them something, even parents – Involvement in illegal activities (often beings with harming pets or starting fires, but increases in severity as they age)

While this list helps people better understand what Antisocial Personality Disorder is and what it might look like in the early stages of life, it is not a checklist to be use to unofficially diagnose someone. The symptoms of psychological disorders are never hard facts that ring true across the board for everyone, but lists like this are a great a guide for common people to understand which direction they might need to go in.

If you know of a child who exhibits these behaviors on a regular basis and has exhibited them for an extended period of time, it might be time to reach out for help. Maybe this will be the encouragement you need to finally seek an evaluation. Working with or raising a child who has any type of behavioral or conduct disorder can be overwhelming and seemingly impossible, but with the right type of help, it can be done and progress can be made.