Childhood-Onset Schizophrenia: An Update
A child's stage of development must be taken into account when considering a diagnosis of mental illness. Behaviors that are normal at one age may not be at another. Rarely, a healthy young child may report strange experiences-such as hearing voices-that would be considered abnormal at a later age. Clinicians look for a more persistent pattern of such behaviors. Parents may have reason for concern if a child of 7 years or older often hears voices saying derogatory things about him or her, or voices conversing with one another, talks to himself or herself, stares at scary things-snakes, spiders, shadows-that are not really there, and shows no interest in friendships. Such behaviors could be signs of schizophrenia , a chronic and disabling form of mental illness.
Fortunately, schizophrenia is rare in children, affecting only about 1 in 40,000, compared to 1 in 100 in adults. The average age of onset is 18 in men and 25 in women. Ranking among the top 10 causes of disability worldwide, schizophrenia, at any age, exacts a heavy toll on patients and their families. Children with schizophrenia experience difficulty in managing everyday life. They share with their adult counterparts psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions), social withdrawal, flattened emotions, increased risk of suicide and loss of social and personal care skills. They may also share some symptoms with-and be mistaken for-children who suffer from autism or other pervasive developmental disabilities, which affect about 1 in 500 children. Although they tend to be harder to treat and have a worse prognosis than adult-onset schizophrenia patients, researchers are finding that many children with schizophrenia can be helped by the new generation of antipsychotic medications.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Misdiagnosis of schizophrenia in children is all too common. It is distinguished from autism by the persistence of hallucinations and delusions for at least 6 months, and a later age of onset-7 years or older. Autism is usually diagnosed by age 3. Schizophrenia is also distinguished from a type of brief psychosis sometimes seen in affective, personality, and dissociative disorders in children. Adolescents with bipolar disorder sometimes have acute onset of manic episodes that may be mistaken for schizophrenia. Children who have been victims of abuse may sometimes claim to hear voices of-or see visions of-the abuser. Symptoms of schizophrenia characteristically pervade the child's life, and are not limited to just certain situations, such as at school. If children show any interest in friendships, even if they fail at maintaining them, it is unlikely that they have schizophrenia.