Epilepsy is a disorder in which abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes recurrent seizures. Autism spectrum disorder, which includes a variety of developmental disorders, is a lifelong, neurodevelopmental condition that can cause social and behavioral impairments and communication issues. Autism symptoms typically develop in early childhood and may include:
Epilepsy is common in autism spectrum disorder. Among people with autism, 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.
Autism spectrum disorder doesn’t appear to be associated with a particular type of seizure, either — focal and generalized seizures, atypical absence seizures, tonic-clonic seizures, and myoclonic seizures have all been reported in children and adolescents with autism.
Researchers are still exploring the relationship between epilepsy and autism spectrum disorder, though research points to several risk factors that may help explain the increased prevalence of epilepsy in people with autism.
Recent studies have confirmed that individuals with autism are more likely to have epilepsy compared with the general population. Estimates vary widely, however — some report rates of more than 40 percent — because of differences in the types of studies and characteristics of the particular participants.
A review of research from 2022 published in the journal Autism estimated the prevalence of epilepsy in people with autism spectrum disorder was between 7 percent and 19 percent. The study found a greater co-occurrence of these two conditions in adults and adolescents than in pediatric populations. Similarly, an earlier study of a group of older adults with autism spectrum disorder had found that 23 percent of participants had a seizure disorder.
Other research suggests that the incidence of epileptic seizures in people with autism peaks twice: in the first year of life and again in adolescence. Both epilepsy and autism are associated with an increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and sleep disorders.
Although there seems to be a clear association between epilepsy and autism spectrum disorder, further research is needed to better understand the specific way this relationship works.
Some researchers have speculated that the presence of other neurological (brain-related) disorders in children with autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy may indicate that an underlying brain abnormality links the conditions. However, this theory does not completely explain the relationship between autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy. Even in the absence of other nervous system disorders, approximately 6 percent of children with autism have epilepsy.
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.
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 syndromes 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 autism spectrum disorder, epilepsy, and regression patterns.
If you’re a parent or caregiver of someone with autism spectrum disorder, 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:
If you notice symptoms, seizures, or seizurelike activity, talk to your doctor. Treatment for epilepsy, such as the use of antiepileptic drugs (anti-seizure medicine) given by a neurologist, does not change if someone has autism spectrum disorder.
Read more about treating epilepsy.
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.
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