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Childhood schizophrenia may be rather rare, but it exists. What are the signs, how is childhood-onset schizophrenia diagnosed, and how is it treated?

Imagine someone pacing around making wild motor movements, talking — perhaps about rather frightening subjects — into thin air, aggressively yelling at things that aren't present. Imagine someone saying all kinds of things but making no sense whatsoever, someone warning you about wild conspiracies, or someone convinced that you're the devil.

This is the image people might conjure up when they hear the word "schizophrenia", and indeed, all of these things can be part of the symptomatic picture. Schizophrenia, in which the sufferer is yanked out of reality and transported to a completely different world in which auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations seem as real as the computer screen you're looking at now does to you, is a mental illness that really scares people.

It scares people enough when its symptoms are displayed by that middle-aged co-worker or discussed in a novel we're reading, when it's at a distance great enough to enable us to essentially ignore it. What if your child started displaying worrying symptoms, at first non-specific and then just as frightening as the stereotypical image of schizophrenia we have all built up, though? Schizophrenia, no matter how uncomfortable we are with that fact, can strike children too.

Would you be able to recognize the red flags, look them squarely in the eye, and seek help?

How Prevalent Is Childhood Schizophrenia?

Most people with schizophrenia develop symptoms in their twenties, and around a percent to a percent and a half of the general adult population is affected by the disorder. Childhood-onset schizophrenia, the symptoms of which must be identified before age 13 in order to qualify for that diagnosis, occurs in roughly one out of every 40,000 children. Most of these children will be over seven years of age when their schizophrenia is identified, however, there are also cases in which under-sevens received this diagnosis.

Rare though childhood schizophrenia may be, it has far-reaching consequences. The onset of symptoms may be gradual, but the condition tends to be severe in children who develop it.

Risk factors include having a first-degree relative with schizophrenia, exposure to certain toxins or viruses in utero or having been malnourished during that stage, and having an older father. Even being born in a city as opposed to a more rural area greatly increases the risk that someone will develop schizophrenia. Despite these known risk factors, it is not yet clear what circumstances must combine in order to cause schizophrenia, nor why this disease, which usually doesn't begin causing symptoms until much later in life, shows up in some younger children.

Childhood Schizophrenia: Symptoms

Children with schizophrenia will experience symptoms very similar to those of their adult counterparts, for which reason there are no separate diagnostic criteria for childhood-onset schizophrenia, besides the requirement that it be diagnosed before age 13.

Symptoms can all be said to fall into "positive", "negative", and cognitive categories. "Positive" refers to symptoms not typically present in healthy people, symptoms that indicate psychosis or loss of touch with reality, those things that the schizophrenia "adds". "Negative" symptoms are those things the disorder "takes away".

Positive symptoms of schizophrenia may include:

  • Hallucinations, which the sufferer experiences as completely real and that can be auditory, visual, and tactile.
  • Delusions.
  • Disorganized thinking patterns.
  • Disorganized bodily movements.

Negative symptoms, on the other hand, are those that signify that the patient has lost the motivation to actively participate in the world. Flat emotions, social withdrawal or even an outright refusal to communicate, and no longer displaying an interest in activities they previously enjoyed, are examples.

Cognitive symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient, but can include indecisiveness, a lacking working memory, and difficulties in concentrating.

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