Childhood-Onset Schizophrenia


Childhood-onset schizophrenia (COS) is a severe mental illness that occurs in an estimated 1 in 40,000 children. By definition COS is schizophrenia that has an onset of psychosis before age 13. For COS the average age at onset is 9. Due to the rarity of this disorder very few psychiatrists have ever seen a COS case. A psychiatrist not familiar with COS may well spend many months testing medications on a child with a first psychotic episode and not reach the correct diagnosis. It is only in the past decade that COS has come to be recognized as a distinct childhood mental disorder by the medical community.


it emerges gradually in children, often preceded by developmental disturbances, such as lags in motor and speech/language development. Such problems tend to be associated with more pronounced brain abnormalities. The diagnostic criteria are the same as for adults, except that symptoms appear prior to age 12, instead of in the late teens or early 20s. Children with schizophrenia often see or hear things that don't really exist, and harbor paranoid and bizarre beliefs. For example, they may think people are plotting against them or can read their minds. Other symptoms of the disorder include problems paying attention, impaired memory and reasoning, speech impairments, inappropriate, or flattened, expression of emotion, poor social skills, and depressed mood. Such children may laugh at a sad event, make poor eye contact, and show little body language or facial expression.


Although it is unclear whether schizophrenia has a single or multiple underlying causes, evidence suggests that it is a neurodevelopmental disease likely involving a genetic predisposition, a prenatal insult to the developing brain, and stressful life events. The role of genetics has long been established; the risk of schizophrenia rises from 1 percent with no family history of the illness, to 10 percent if a first degree relative has it, to 50 percent if an identical twin has it. Prenatal insults may include viral infections, such as maternal influenza in the second trimester, starvation, lack of oxygen at birth, and untreated blood type incompatibility


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 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's unlikely that they have schizophrenia.


The outcome for children with schizophrenia varies greatly and some individuals function well with medication. Earlier onset is often associated with a poorer outcome when it interferes with attending school and completing an education. However, because children typically live at home with the combined social environments of family and school, symptoms are often recognized early. This fact is significant because recent studies have suggested that earlier treatment may reduce the decline in functioning and long-term impairments commonly associated with schizophrenia. As such, accurate and early intervention and diagnosis are critical.


Treatment for schizophrenia includes biological, educational, and social interventions. Medication is the cornerstone of the treatment of schizophrenia, but should be viewed as a means to facilitate psychological and social interventions. Treatment with only medication is not as effective as medication therapy combined with other forms of treatment.