What is the Connection Between Autism and Epilepsy?

T. Carrier
T. Carrier
Doctors may use an EEG to confirm a diagnosis of epilepsy.
Doctors may use an EEG to confirm a diagnosis of epilepsy.

Autism and epilepsy are two of the most prevalent neural disorders. In many individuals, these conditions coexist. Numerous studies reveal that between one quarter and one half of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder also suffer from epilepsy.

For reasons not entirely understood, individuals diagnosed with autism are often diagnosed with epilepsy as well. Some scientists believe a mutation in the gene LG11 may play a role in both disorders. This gene helps control nerve cell signals that aid in brain growth during development. Disturbances in neural cells have long been considered a possible instigator for both autism and epilepsy.

A diagnosis of epilepsy requires an individual to have a seizure disorder. Seizure manifestations can range from a small lapse of awareness to extreme bodily thrashing. When a seizure affects only one portion of the brain, a partial seizure results, whereas a seizure that spreads is known as a generalized seizure. Both types may occur in autistic individuals. Elevated neural brain activity generally causes seizures.

Neural impairment is also believed to be a major contributor to autistic disorders. Delayed social development, communication struggles, and obsessive-compulsive behavior are early and continued signs of autism. Some specific symptoms may include lack of verbal communication, diminished eye contact, a decreased understanding of facial and other emotional cues, and faithful performance of rituals. A diagnosis can typically be reached by a child’s third birthday.

If a child develops at a normal pace and then begins experiencing setbacks around the 18th month, this constitutes regressive autism. In other words, the child does not display autistic tendencies from birth. Some research reveals a particular link between this type of autism and epilepsy incidences in patients. This connection is most apparent on electroencephalography tests.

Other factors also appear to increase the likelihood of an autism and epilepsy correlation. A higher rating on the autism spectrum may heighten the risk for epileptic episodes. Those autistic individuals with greater language comprehension deficits, lesser motor control, and more widespread cognitive disability may all have an increased risk for epilepsy.

Childhood epilepsy types such as the mild rolandic epilepsy are somewhat more common among the autistic population as well. These epilepsies usually occur between the ages of three and 12. In contrast, genetic-based epilepsies like ideopathic epilepsy may be less likely to present in autistic individuals.

Sometimes, typical behaviors of autistic individuals like swaying, staring, or sudden movements may be mistaken for epilepsy. If the seizure-like behaviors are preceded by extreme emotions like anger, then an epileptic cause is unlikely. Sensitivity to sensory stimuli like blinking lights or loud sounds may instigate a seizure, however. A true epileptic episode often follows a predictable pattern, and headaches, exhaustion, or disorientation frequently accompany an attack. For an autistic individual, certain movements that accompany shuddering or staring — like lip-smacking, chewing, or infrequent blinking — may signal an epileptic seizure.

Discussion Comments

anon322481

My eight year old daughter was diagnosed with seizures when she was three years old, but recently I started reading books on autism and found out that she is having some of the symptoms of autism. The question I want to ask is now that she is eight years old is there any hope for her getting over it?

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    • Doctors may use an EEG to confirm a diagnosis of epilepsy.
      By: Tobilander
      Doctors may use an EEG to confirm a diagnosis of epilepsy.