Autism and Co-occurring Conditions: Seizures

640_AutismSeizures are not one of the core symptoms of autism, but they are a common co-morbid condition for many on the autism spectrum. It is estimated that 10-30% of individuals with autism also suffer from epilepsy, a neurological condition that causes seizures.

A 2013 study published in Medical News Today found that adults diagnosed with epilepsy were more likely to demonstrate signs of an autism spectrum disorder, including impaired communication, limited social interactions, and restrictive interests. The investigators found that epileptic seizures affect the neurological function that affects social interaction within the brain. Dr. Sally Ann Wakeford, Phd., University of Bath, England, says,

“The social difficulties in epilepsy have been so far under-diagnosed and research has not uncovered any underlying theory to explain them. This new research links social difficulties to a deficit in somatic markers in the brain, explaining these characteristics in adults with epilepsy.”

Seizures can begin at any age, and can vary in symptoms and intensity. Common symptoms include unexplained staring spells, stiffening of muscles, involuntary jerking of limbs, facial twitching, unexplained confusion, and severe headaches. Other symptoms that may indicate seizure activity include sleepiness or sleep disturbances, marked and unexplained irritability or aggressiveness, and regression in normal development.

There are several types of seizures, from severe to less noticeable. Tonic-clonic seziures, or grand-mal seizures, are the most severe, characterized by muscle stiffening followed by jerking, sometimes resulting in loss of consciousness. Absence or petit mal seizures are more difficult to spot, characterized by periods of staring or unresponsiveness that may or may not be followed by twitching. Tonic seizures involve muscle stiffening alone. Clonic seizures are characterized by repeated jerking movements on both sides of the body. Myocolonic seizures involve jerking or twitching of the upper body, arms or legs, and atonic seizures are characterized by a sudden loss of muscle tone, or limpness.

While grand-mal seizures can be quite obvious, other types are not as easy to spot, especially in a patient who is already severely affected by autism. Symptoms such as staring off into space or repeated twitching movements can easily be mistaken for withdrawal or self-stimulatory behaviors.

The most common way to diagnose seizures is through an electroencephalogram (EEG). For this test, electrodes are placed in several spots around the patient’s head, and electrical activity within the brain is observed for a given period of time. A positive result indicates the presence of seizure activity. It is important to note that a negative reading may only mean that no seizure activity took place during the reading, and cannot necessarily rule out the presence of seizures.

Most doctors prescribe anticonvulsant medication to treat seizures. Controlling seizure activity within the brain can have many benefits, including better sleep, calmer moods, and better ability to concentrate. All medications have potential side effects, and should be monitored by a doctor.

If you suspect that your child may be having seizures, find a pediatric neurologist who specializes in seizure disorders.

To read other articles in this series on autism and co-morbidity click here