Jani has been described by the media and her parents as suicidal and violent, but she can reportedly behave well and show stability when doing things that she enjoys, such as when people engage her in mental stimulation. Jani displays tics and flaps her hands, but a diagnosis of autism or Asperger syndrome has reportedly been considered but rejected by clinicians.
Jani's diagnosis of child-onset schizophrenia appears to be based upon the fantasy/imaginary/delusional world that Jani enjoys living in a lot of the time. Jani even has a name for this place - the island of Calalini. Jani claims to have many strange friends (who only exist in her mind), who reportedly bite and scratch her. In her earlier years these “friends” took the form of rats, cats and playmates with names that unaccountably were units of measurement, numbers or other items that belong in learned linear sequences. For example, Jani’s imaginary friends included rats named Wednesday, 200 and Saturn, a cat named 61, and girls named 100 degrees and 24 hours. In December 2009 it was reported that Jani’s “hallucinations” are now personified numbers. At the very beginning of the June 29th 2009 video about Jani produced by the LA Times Jani tells an interviewer that her ambition for a job when she grows up is to be a veterinarian, then she thinks again and quickly says she wants to be a "number checker" whose job it is to draw blood from "numbers" and make them "feel better". Clearly Jani is imagining or experiencing personified numbers. Given what we know about Jani and her "imaginary friends" who are numbers etc, she would appear to be a case of ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP), which is a form of synesthesia/synaesthesia, which is a generally harmless neurological condition. Certainly most people who have OLP do not have their conscious existence dominated by it in the way that it seems to affect Jani, but there could be many reasons why there is so much focus on the more bizarre aspects of Jani's mental life in videos and articles about Jani. Jani and her family wouldn't be famous if she wasn't believed to be mentally ill. Jani's obsessive focus on numbers makes me wonder if Jani has some type of mathematical obsession typical of autistic, intellectually gifted or savant people, which her parents are either unaware of or do not wish to highlight. Many people believe that Jani is autistic, but her parents clearly embrace schizophrenia as an explanation for Jani's many unusual characteristics and behaviours, to the exclusion of all other explanations.
Does it ever actually happen that a synaesthete's synaesthesia is medically misdiagnosed as schizophrenia? I have read about some cases, and the famous neuroscientist and author V. S. Ramachandran has written about one such case in his 2011 book The Tell-tale Brain. On page 78 of the William Heinemann paperback edition can be found Ramachandran's account of the misdiagnosis of synaesthesia in a female patient as hallucinations of schizophrenia. The female synaesthete patient was apparently prescribed antipsychotic medication (similar to the type of drugs given to Jani), until her parents did some research, found out about synaesthesia and shared this information with their daughter's doctor. Apparently the synaesthete was promptly taken off the drugs when this dreadful misdiagnosis became clear. another less damaging case of a young synaesthete being misdiagnosed as psychotic can be found on page 10 of the excellent book Wednesday is Indigo Blue by synaesthesia researchers Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman. The baby-sitter of a four-year-old synaesthete insisted that the child was "psychotic" after the innocent child described his visual experiences evoked by apple juice, and also depicted sounds in crayon drawings. Fortunately the child was blessed with educated parents who initially had not known about synaesthesia, but also had the good sense to refrain from writing off their toddler as a mental case. They did their own research in a university library, searching for alternative explanations and they eventually contacted one of the authors of the book, asking his opinion.
A December 2009 Los Angeles Times article contains a hint that Jani’s “hallucinations” display a consistency that is the hallmark of genuine synesthesia “She told me her hallucinations always wear the same clothes.” Another hint that Jani experiences OLP is her violent objection to being called by her full first name. Jani reportedly hates the name "January". Is this because her OLP associations with this month of the year clash with her self-image, or are simply not liked by her? Synesthesia is an inherited condition. One has to wonder at the coincidence in which a child who appears to have OLP has been given a month of the year for a first name.
One could possibly argue that Jani does not have OLP because the personification of her imaginary companions goes beyond the limits of the typically reported experience of OLP – Jani’s companions reportedly talk to her, move and even bite her. It is hard to judge whether Jani’s accounts are a combination of OLP and imagination, or could possibly be confabulation to explain a confusing experience of OLP juxtaposed with other sensory types of synesthesia. According to the Jani’s Journey website Jani “experiences hallucinations in four of her five senses.” Another possible difference between Jani’s experiences and OLP is that Jani’s personifications have involved animals, while I am not aware of any report of OLP that does not involve human-like personifications. Whatever the case, I have read no explanation of why Jani’s mind has always been so extremely occupied with items that belong in learned linear sequences, while a number of different types of synesthesia (sequence->space synesthesia, number form synaesthesia, OLP and grapheme->colour synaesthesia) do involve items that belong in learned linear sequences. Reported experiences of synesthesia could easily be mistaken as hallucination or delusion or psychosis by non-synesthetes who do not know what synesthesia is. Synesthesia appears to be the most comprehensive explanation for Jani’s “hallucinations”.
I favour OLP, possibly combined with sequence->space synaesthesia, as an explanation for Jani's thing with numbers and other sequential items, but there is another possible cause for a person "seeing" numbers that aren't really there. This is a quote from the 2010 book The Mind's Eye by neurologist Oliver Sacks: "People with disorders of the visual pathway (anywhere from the retina to the visual cortex) may be prone to visual hallucinations, and Dominic ffytche and his colleagues estimate that about a quarter of these patients who hallucinate see "text, isolated words, individual letters, numbers, or musical note hallucinations." Such lexical hallucinations, as ffytche and his colleagues have found, are associated with conspicuous activation of the left occipitotemporal region, especially the the visual word form area ..." In a 2009 TED talk Sacks explained the difference between psychotic and non-psychotic visual hallucinations (at 10.50 minutes) - psychotic hallucinations address the person experiencing them, while the other type does not. The way Jani's experiences are described they seem to fit into the category of psychotic hallucinations, but there could be reasons why they are presented as such. I doubt that Jani could have an undetected visual disorder or visual disability that is serious enough to cause the type of visual hallucinations described by ffytche and Sacks, but I think it is still worth mentioning.
In December 2009 the Los Angeles Times reported that Jani still experiences her “hallucinations” frequently, even though she has been medicated with some of the most powerful anti-schizophrenia drugs (and a bipolar drug as well, just to be sure).
Link to video of a news story about Jani and other girls diagnosed with “childhood schizophrenia”
Link to the ABC 20/20 story at the Australian 60 Minutes web site
"The lost children"
reporter Jay Schadler, producer Claire Weinraub.
"Jani’s at the mercy of her mind"
Los Angeles Times August 1st 2009.
[Jani has been the subject of many stories in the Los Angeles Times newspaper]
"Hushing the intruders in her brain."
Los Angeles Times December 29th 2009.
Ramachandran, V. S. The tell-tale brain: unlocking the mystery of human nature. William Heinemann, 2011.
Sacks, Oliver The Mind's Eye. Picador, 2010.
Oliver Sacks: what hallucination reveals about our minds. TED. filmed February 2009, posted September 2009.
Dossetor, D. R. (2007) 'All that glitters is not gold': misdiagnosis of psychosis in pervasive developmental disorders--a case series. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2007 Oct;12(4):537-48.
Ruth, M. and Ryan, M.D. (1992) Treatment-Resistant Chronic Mental Illness: Is It Asperger's Syndrome? Hospital and Community Psychiatry. August 1992. 43, 807-881.
Further reading about synaesthesia, object personification and ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia
Ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP, or personification for short)
Amin, Maina Olu-Lafe, Olufemi, Claessen, Loes E., Sobczak-Edmans, Monika, Ward, Jamie, Williams, Adrian L. and Sagiv, Noam (2011) Understanding Grapheme Personification: A Social Synaesthesia? Journal of Neuropsychology. Vol. 5, No. 2, pp 255-282.
Carriere, Jonathan, Malcolmson, Kelly, Eller, Meghan, Kwan, Donna, Reynolds, Michael and Smilek, Daniel (2007) Personifying inanimate objects in Synaesthesia. Journal of Vision. June 30, 2007 vol. 7 no. 9 article 532. doi: 10.1167/7.9.532
Cytowic, Richard E. and Eagleman, David M. (2009) Wednesday is indigo blue: discovering the brain of synaesthesia. MIT Press, 2009.
[There are a few interesting pages in this book about personification]