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Epilepsy and Autism: Is There a Connection?

Posted on February 14, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Brooke Dulka, Ph.D.

Epilepsy is a disorder in which abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes recurrent seizures. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including autistic disorder and Asperger syndrome, is a lifelong, neurodevelopmental condition that can cause social and behavioral impairments as well as issues with communication. Autism symptoms typically develop in early childhood and may include:

  • A preoccupation with certain subjects or objects
  • Strict adherence to routines and rituals
  • Unusual or repetitive use of language
  • Abnormally focused interest
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Difficulty starting or sustaining a conversation with others
  • Inability or difficulty engaging in imaginative and social play

Epilepsy is common in ASD. Among people with ASD, an estimated 20 percent to 25 percent also have epilepsy. By comparison, the rate of epilepsy is about 1 percent in the U.S. population.

ASD does not appear to be associated with one type of seizure in particular, either — focal and generalized seizures, atypical absence seizures, tonic-clonic seizures, and myoclonic seizures have all been reported in children and adolescents with ASD.

Researchers are still exploring the relationship between epilepsy and autism, though research points to several risk factors that may help explain the increased prevalence of epilepsy in people with autism.

Other Neurological Disorders

Some researchers have speculated that the presence of other neurological (brain-related) disorders in children with ASD and epilepsy may indicate that an underlying brain abnormality links the conditions.

However, this theory does not completely explain the relationship between ASD and epilepsy. Even in the absence of other neurological disorders, approximately 6 percent of children with autism have epilepsy.

Cognitive Impairment

Others have found that increased levels of cognitive impairment in autism may be associated with increased seizure risk. In particular, seizures may be more frequent when a person’s autism is associated with intellectual disability and there are additional neurological signs, such as cerebral palsy.

Regression

Autistic regression refers to when children with autism have a loss in their behavior, language, and communication skills. Regression may play a role in the connection between epilepsy and autism. Research has found that brain wave patterns characteristic of seizures (called epileptiform activity) may be associated with a history of language regression. More research is needed to understand the relationship between ASD, epilepsy, and regression patterns.

Recognizing and Managing Epilepsy in Autism

If you’re a parent or caretaker of someone with ASD, it is important to be aware of symptoms of epilepsy due to the high rate of comorbidity (co-occurrence) of these two disorders. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the signs and symptoms of seizures in children include:

  • Jerking movements (typically of the arms and legs)
  • Stiffening of the body
  • Staring
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Losing control of the bowels or bladder
  • Problems breathing
  • Seeming confused
  • Not responding to sounds or words
  • Periods of blinking rapidly and staring

If you notice symptoms, seizures, or seizure-like activity, talk to your doctor. Treatment for epilepsy, such as the use of antiepileptic drugs, does not change if someone has ASD.

Read more about treating epilepsy.

Building a Community

MyEpilepsyTeam is the social network for people with epilepsy and their loved ones. On MyEpilepsyTeam, members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with epilepsy.

Do you or a loved one have autism and epilepsy? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyEpilepsyTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Brooke Dulka, Ph.D. is a freelance science writer and editor. She received her doctoral training in biological psychology at the University of Tennessee. Learn more about her here.

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