The Link Between Autism and Epilepsy: Challenges, Treatment, and Hope for the Future

As November is Epilepsy Awareness Month, I thought that I would focus on Autism and Epilepsy as it is present in children with Autism at a much higher rate than in typical children. In the general population, fewer than 1% of children ages 17 and younger develop clinical seizures. By comparison, one of the largest studies aimed at identifying the prevalence of Epilepsy in children with Autism found that children aged 10 and older had 2.35 times the odds of being diagnosed with Epilepsy.  

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that is a result of a disruption in the electrical communication between neurons, which produces a seizure.  Common symptoms of a seizure include involuntary stiffening or jerking of muscles, confusion, and loss of consciousness. Seizures can range in type and severity. The type of seizure that occurs is largely linked to where it begins in the brain. In generalized tonic-clonic seizures, both halves of the brain are affected, and persons experience a stiffening of muscles and twitching or jerking.  People with Autism are more likely to experience this type of seizure. In partial or focal seizures one area of the brain is affected and persons experience a loss of awareness or may remain fully aware during the episode.  Febrile seizures, experienced by children 3 months to 6 years, occur when a child has a high fever and may be either general or focal.

Currently, seizures in an individual with Autism are treated in the same way as seizures in individuals without Autism. There is little research on specific treatments for individuals with Autism and seizures.  Despite Epilepsy being the fourth most common neurological disorder, funding for research and treatment of the disorder is substantially less than that of other brain disorders.

My experience with Epilepsy occurred when Ryan was 3 years of age and he, as reported by his teacher, would “stare off in space”.  Fortunately, I have a brother who is a pediatric neurologist, and he observed Ryan in his classroom. He suggested an EEG, and it was determined that Ryan was not experiencing seizures. But it certainly was a very worrisome time.

Persons with Epilepsy and Autism do face numerous challenges.  How can we best support them and their families?

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