Autism and epilepsy – what’s the link?

  • April 8, 2021
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In this article

Autism and epilepsy are two conditions that affect the brain and how people behave. Sometimes, people have autism and epilepsy at the same time. In fact, studies show that people who have epilepsy are more likely to have autism than others.

What is the autism and epilepsy connection? Let’s learn how the two conditions are linked, what the symptoms are, and how they might be treated.

Autism and epilepsy connection

Research has found that people with epilepsy are more likely to also have autism than others. About 1% of children in the US have epilepsy, and 1.8% have autism. However, up to 20% of people with autism also have epilepsy.

Researchers still don’t know exactly what causes this autism and epilepsy connection. There are a few possible explanations though:

  • Genetics: There are certain gene mutations that happen in both epilepsy and autism. Also, studies have shown that children who have an autistic sibling are more likely to have epilepsy (even if they don’t have autism themselves).
  • ‘Epileptiform’ brain activity: One way to diagnose epilepsy is to use an EEG machine which records the waves of electrical activity in the brain. People with epilepsy often have specific kinds of electrical patterns. Similar patterns are also seen in people with autism – even if they’ve never actually had a seizure.

The development of autism and epilepsy in children is common - the majority of people show symptoms of both conditions by the time they reach adolescence. It’s less common for an autistic adult to start having seizures, although this still happens.

Epilepsy and autism symptoms

It can sometimes be difficult to diagnose epilepsy in a child with autism because the symptoms sometimes look similar. For example, common autism symptoms include making unusual body postures, or performing repetitive actions. These could also be the symptoms of certain kinds of epileptic seizure too.

That being said, epileptic seizures symptoms are often quite noticeable:

  • Tonic clonic seizures: The person goes stiff, falls over and shakes
  • Focal seizures: Comes with different behaviors for different people, including muscle contractions, unusual body movements and lip smacking, among other symptoms
  • Absence seizures: The person will appear to ‘daydream’ and be unresponsive

If your child has autism and you think they might also be having seizures, it’s best to speak to a neurologist to get a diagnosis. If possible, try to record a video of the seizure behavior, or take detailed notes of what happens.

Learn more: What causes epilepsy in children?

Autism and laughing seizures

Children with autism laugh just like anyone else when they find something funny. But sometimes they also laugh to relieve anxiety, tension, fear, or even when they feel pain. This behavior can seem confusing if they’re not laughing for an ‘obvious’ reason. 

This kind of unusual laughing could also be related to epilepsy. Some children with autism may have ‘gelastic’ seizures. These are seizures that make them laugh for no reason.

Diagnosing autism and laughing seizures can be difficult, since the symptoms can easily be confused. Still, it’s really worth speaking to your child’s doctor about getting epilepsy tests done. 

One case report with a child who had autism and laughing seizures showed that treating the underlying cause of the seizures helped stop them, and even helped with the child’s autistic behaviors too.

Autism and epilepsy treatment

Every individual with autism and epilepsy is different. There is no standard treatment for people with autism and there is no ‘cure’. On the other hand, epilepsy is normally treated with anti-epilepsy drugs, which help about two-thirds of people control their seizures. If medication does not work, there are plenty of alternative treatments available too, including surgery, diet, and medical devices.

People with autism sometimes also have attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. They might take medication to treat these conditions. If they also have epilepsy and take drugs to prevent seizures, there could be drug interactions. It’s always a good idea to speak to your child’s neurologist when taking new medication to check whether there’s a risk of different medications interacting with one another.

Early treatment

Research suggests that autism and epilepsy in children has the best outcomes when the child receives treatment early. So, if you think your child might be having seizures, make an appointment with a neurologist as soon as possible. 

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