Autism or Schizophrenia: A Common Misdiagnosis

Autism or Schizophrenia: A Common Misdiagnosis

If a child is socially withdrawn and does not make eye contact when communicating with others, is the diagnosis schizophrenia or autism (Dvir & Frazier, 2011)? The two overlap because in most cases of schizophrenia, patients are often diagnosed during late adolescence to early thirties (WebMD, 2016). Therefore, a diagnosis earlier in age is rare and often becomes misdiagnosed. According to the DSM-5, schizophrenic symptoms are categorized as either positive or negative and include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and catatonia, which is an irregularity in motor movement (APA, 2013). Although this disorder is commonly diagnosed in young adults during late adolescence, there have been rare cases of schizophrenia in youth, which are those under the age of eighteen. While the likelihood of typical schizophrenia is 1% of people globally, the likelihood of childhood schizophrenia is 1 in 40,000 (Gochman, Miller, & Rapoport, 2011).

When a child is being evaluated by a psychologist, most often their early onset schizophrenia can be misdiagnosed as autism spectrum disorder, due to their overlap in social dysfunction symptoms (University of Texas at Dallas, 2012). In the first two editions of the DSM (APA, 1952 & 1968), autism spectrum disorder was a subcategory under schizophrenia . It was considered, “schizophrenia, childhood type” (Barlati, Deste, Ariu, & Vita, 2016). It was not until the publication of the third DSM that autism became its own category called “Infantile Autism”, which eventually was given the more expressive term, “Autism Disorder” (Project Autism, n.d).

According to a case study done by Shilpa A. Telgote, Shreyas Shrikant Pendharkar, Amol D. Kelkar and Sachin Bhojane, early onset schizophrenia, as opposed to typical schizophrenia is diagnosed prior to the age of eighteen. A diagnosis  earlier than thirteen years of age is considered very early onset schizophrenia, or VEOS. In this case study, it is mentioned that the likelihood of a very early onset diagnosis increases if the patient has a family history of schizophrenia, or any schizophrenic spectrum disorders. Those diagnosed early on exhibit the same symptoms as those who are diagnosed later in life, however they tend to show signs of irregularities in language development, as well as motor and social development (Telgote, Shrikant, Pendharkar, Kelkar, & Bhojane, 2017).  

Oprah Winfrey interviewed with Dr. Judith Rapoport, the chief of the National Institute of Mental Health’s child psychiatry (Winfrey, 2009). Rapoport gives us a little more knowledge of early onset of schizophrenia. When Oprah asked the question, “How are childhood schizophrenia symptoms different than those associated with adult schizophrenics?”, her response states  that adult schizophrenia is more of sudden, whereas in childhood schizophrenia, it’s gradual. In the case study referenced before, their patient’s symptoms were also showing up gradually at the age of nine (Telgote, Shrikant, Pendharkar, Kelkar, & Bhojane, 2017). Rapoport also talks about the commonality for children to have an imaginary friend. In fact, having an imaginary friend shows that the child is functioning very well, but in the case of children suffering from schizophrenia, it becomes more of a disturbance in the home (Winfrey, 2009).

Overall, early onset schizophrenia, although rare, is possible and often mistook for autism. While the symptoms may overlap, they are considered two separate disorders in the DSM-5. It is vital that we spread awareness about this common misdiagnosis to allow children to receive the proper diagnosis so they can be treated in the best way possible.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

Barlati, S., Deste, G., Ariu, C., & Vita, A. (2016). Autism Spectrum Disorder and Schizophrenia: Do They Overlap? International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 18(01). doi:10.4172/1522-4821.1000318

Childhood Schizophrenia Q&A. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2017, from

Dvir, Y., & Frazier, J. A. (2011, March 15). Autism and Schizophrenia. Retrieved October 03, 2017, from

Gochman, P., Miller, R., & Rapoport, J. L. (2011). Childhood-Onset Schizophrenia: The Challenge of Diagnosis. Current Psychiatry Reports, 13(5), 321–322.

History of Autism. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2017, from

Telgote, S. A., Pendharkar, S. S., Kelkar, A. D., & Bhojane, S. (2017). Very Early-onset Schizophrenia with Secondary Onset Tic Disorder. Indian Journal Of Psychological Medicine, 39(4), 519-522. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.211739

University of Texas at Dallas. (2012, February 28). Study compares traits of autism,schizophrenia. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 28, 2017 from

Victoria Radesco

My passion for psychology began when I was home with a fever in middle school and I spent my day off researching mental illnesses and what in the brain causes it. Whenever I had an opportunity, I would choose psychology as a topic for all my school assignments. For example, I did my Biology project in 10th grade on the symptoms and risk factors of Schizophrenia and I wrote a research paper on how music affects the brain. As a psychology major, I am constantly looking for courses that have to do with mental illnesses and which parts of the brain cause it. After taking Biopsychology last semester, I am currently taking Abnormal and Clinical Psychology and I’m able to learn about each mental illness more in depth. This course can be very beneficial to everyone because I believe the way to help destigmatize mental illnesses is to educate those who encourage the stigma. You can probably either find me at the mall feeding my shopping addiction or in bed watching Netflix.

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