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What is Early Onset Schizophrenia?

Liz Fernandez
Liz Fernandez

Early onset schizophrenia is an uncommon psychiatric illness that develops in adolescence, usually before the age of 17. The development of the illness before the age of 13 is referred to as very early onset schizophrenia and is very rare. Diagnosis of the illness can be difficult because the symptoms can resemble traits of other childhood diseases.

Sufferers of schizophrenia are most affected by the illness's destruction of cognition. A patient’s thinking process starts to disintegrate and his or her connection with reality unravels. The illness also has a social and emotional component. Sufferers begin to disconnect from emotional responses and have trouble with relationships.


Oftentimes, those with the illness will battle other conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders. They may suffer from long-term social problems such as unemployment, poverty and substance abuse. Their life expectancy is about 12 years less than the average person due to health problems.

Children and adolescents diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia face the same issues. They experience breaks in reality, problems with their cognitive processes and social difficulties. Children with early onset schizophrenia have a difficult time making friends and carrying on interpersonal interactions.

Diagnosing early onset schizophrenia in children and adolescents is difficult because one of the common symptoms of the disease, hallucinations, is a common symptom of other illnesses. Mood disorders and dissociative disorders can be the cause of hallucinations in children and adolescents. Often, those suffering from autism and other developmental disorders are misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia.

Common symptoms of early onset schizophrenia include visual or auditory hallucinations, paranoid delusions, scattered speech, catatonic behavior, emotional disconnectedness, lack of energy and loss of joy. Diagnosing a child or adolescent involves identifying two of these symptoms that have been present for at least six months. Doctors will also look for difficulty with friendships, problems at school and a reluctance to perform day-to-day activities to arrive at a diagnosis.

Childhood sufferers of the disease are treated with anti-psychotic drugs. The most common side effect of the drugs is weight gain. They also receive specialized education to deal with their reduced cognitive abilities. This involves small classrooms with teachers experienced in dealing with psychiatric disorders. Therapy is also prescribed for the patient so he or she can develop social skills and to help the family cope with the illness.

The prognosis of early onset schizophrenia is varied. Previously, the prevailing thought was that most patients would have a poor outcome because of the social and learning difficulties associated with the illness. Many doctors, however, believe that the support of family and the school environment help to recognize the symptoms early. Various studies have suggested that early recognition of schizophrenia leads to earlier treatment and a higher level of functioning for the child as he or she enters adulthood.

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