The onset of Friedreich ataxia (FA) was before 10 years of age in 36 out of 95 personally observed patients. We studied the clinical and laboratory findings of these childhood onset patients. Mean onset age +/- SD was 6.3 +/- 2.4 years. Gait and stance ataxia and lower limb areflexia were constant, dysmetria, dysarthria, Babinski sign, pes cavus, scoliosis and decreased vibration sense were present in the majority of patients. Higher occurrence of diabetes in childhood onset cases (25%) was the only statistical difference in comparison with later onset patients. Mean onset age of diabetes was 21.1 +/- 6.9 years and all patients required insulin. ECG was abnormal in 72% of the patients and echocardiographic evidence of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was found in 43%. Linkage analysis, performed in 10 families, showed no recombination between the polymorphic markers of the 9q13-21.1 region and the disease locus with a peak lod score of 4.21 at a recombination fraction = 0.00.