Autism, Seizures, and Epilepsy: Is There a Link? | MyEpilepsyTeam

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Epilepsy and Autism: Is There a Link?

Medically reviewed by Chiara Rocchi, M.D.
Written by Brooke Dulka, Ph.D.
Updated on January 11, 2024

  • Epilepsy has been correlated with many neurological conditions, including autism.
  • Caregivers of children with autism should know the signs of a seizure and how to respond appropriately.
  • Having autism doesn’t affect epilepsy treatment regimens.

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:

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

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.

An estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of people with autism also have epilepsy.

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Autism spectrum disorder doesn’t appear to be associated with a particular type of seizure — focal and generalized seizures, atypical absence seizures, tonic-clonic seizures, and myoclonic seizures have all been reported in children and adolescents with autism.

How Are Epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder Related?

Researchers are still exploring the relationship between epilepsy and autism spectrum disorder, although study findings point to several risk factors that may help explain the increased prevalence (commonness) 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, 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 that 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 found that 23 percent of participants had a seizure disorder.

Other research suggests that the incidence of epileptic seizure activity in people with autism peaks twice: in the first year of life and again during 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 relationship.

Other Neurological Disorders

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. This is especially true in some syndromes in which these presentations can be explained by genetic changes. However, this theory doesn’t completely explain the relationship between autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy. Even in the absence of other nervous system disorders, about 6 percent of children with autism have epilepsy, according to a study published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Even in the absence of other nervous system disorders, about 6 percent of children with autism have epilepsy.

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Cognitive Impairment

The presence of learning differences or intellectual disability is most associated with the co-occurrence of autism and epilepsy. Some studies have found that greater 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.

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 syndromes and autism. Studies have shown 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.

Recognizing and Managing Epilepsy in Autism

If you’re a parent or caregiver of someone with autism spectrum disorder, it’s 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
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Problems breathing
  • Confusion
  • Lack of response to sounds or words
  • Periods of blinking rapidly and staring

Caregivers of people with autism should be aware of symptoms of epilepsy due to the high rate of these two disorders occurring together.

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If you notice symptoms, seizures, or seizurelike activity, talk to your doctor. Treatment for epilepsy, such as the choice of anti-seizure medication given by a neurologist, may be tailored according to the presence of autism and other comorbidities. Read more about treating epilepsy.

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

Updated on January 11, 2024
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Chiara Rocchi, M.D. completed medical school and neurology residency at Polytechnic Marche University in Italy. 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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