I was intrigued when I read this article in the NY Times: Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath? I recommend the read, it's pretty interesting, but it goes into something I had not heard of before. Early identification and treatment to "cure" children that score high on a scale of sociopath probability. Here are some crucial excerpts:
Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number of psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5. Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits, which most researchers now believe distinguish “fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder, who are also impulsive and hard to control and exhibit hostile or violent behavior. According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits. (Narcissism and impulsivity, which are part of the adult diagnostic criteria, are difficult to apply to children, who are narcissistic and impulsive by nature.)The idea that a young child could have psychopathic tendencies remains controversial among psychologists. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has argued that psychopathy, like other personality disorders, is almost impossible to diagnose accurately in children, or even in teenagers — both because their brains are still developing and because normal behavior at these ages can be misinterpreted as psychopathic. Others fear that even if such a diagnosis can be made accurately, the social cost of branding a young child a psychopath is simply too high. (The disorder has historically been considered untreatable.) John Edens, a clinical psychologist at Texas A&M University, has cautioned against spending money on research to identify children at risk of psychopathy. “This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”You have to feel for the parents profiled in the story. They seem harried beyond belief, desperate, exhausted, and willing to try anything. The idealist in me wants to believe that if you could get ahold of these people at a young enough age that you can prevent disaster, but the realist in me says that this is very unlikely. I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, I have no data to back my hunch. I'm glad that there are people who aren't willing to just lock these kids up and throw away the key, but I also think it's very premature to give these families false hope that their little terror can be "cured." I just feel like this is a far-fetched, potentially very expensive treatment plan being hawked at parents who are at their wit's end and willing to go to any expense. Then again, what's the alternative? How do you "walk away" from your kid? (Edit: especially, when you have other younger children to consider, who are potential targets by dangerous siblings.)Mark Dadds, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales who studies antisocial behavior in children, acknowledges that “no one is comfortable labeling a 5-year-old a psychopath.” But, he says, ignoring these traits may be worse. “The research showing that this temperament exists and can be identified in young children is quite strong.” Recent studies have revealed what appear to be significant anatomical differences in the brains of adolescent children who scored high on the youth version of the Psychopathy Checklist — an indication that the trait may be innate. Another study, which tracked the psychological development of 3,000 children over a period of 25 years, found that signs of psychopathy could be detected in children as young as 3. A small but growing number of psychologists, Dadds and Waschbusch among them, say that confronting the problem earlier may present an opportunity to help these children change course. Researchers hope, for example, that the capacity for empathy, which is controlled by specific parts of the brain, might still exist weakly in callous-unemotional children, and could be strengthened.
The benefits of successful treatment could be enormous. Psychopaths are estimated to make up 1 percent of the population but constitute roughly 15 to 25 percent of the offenders in prison and are responsible for a disproportionate number of brutal crimes and murders. A recent estimate by the neuroscientist Kent Kiehl placed the national cost of psychopathy at $460 billion a year — roughly 10 times the cost of depression — in part because psychopaths tend to be arrested repeatedly. (The societal costs of nonviolent psychopaths may be even higher. Robert Hare, the co-author of “Snakes in Suits,” describes evidence of psychopathy among some financiers and business people; he suspects Bernie Madoff of falling into that category.) The potential for improvement is also what separates diagnosis from determinism: a reason to treat psychopathic children rather than jail them. “As the nuns used to say, ‘Get them young enough, and they can change,’ ” Dadds observes. “You have to hope that’s true. Otherwise, what are we stuck with? These monsters.”