What do seizures have to do with autism? Seizure disorder and epilepsy occur frequently in autistic children. Nearly 30% of children with autism were diagnosed with epilepsy while fewer than 1% of neurotypical children develop clinical seizures.
Additionally, many symptoms of seizure disorders overlap with autism characteristics. It can be hard to tell the difference between seizures and stereotypical autistic behavior like stimming or tics.
What Causes a Seizure?
A seizure is an abnormal outburst of electrical activity in the brain. The location and intensity of the electrical activity determines what the seizure looks like to an outside observer. The root cause of seizures varies by child.
Typically seizures are self-limited, meaning they will stop on their own. However, in rare cases seizures can be constant or continuous. This is known as status epilepticus. During these seizures the individual doesn’t regain consciousness between the seizures which is a very scary and dangerous situation.
How Can You Distinguish a Seizure from Stimming?
The most notable difference between a seizure and autistic stimming or tics is a loss of consciousness or a lack of responsiveness. However, as we all know, it can be hard to get the attention of an autistic child, making it even more challenging to figure out if their behavior is the result of their autism or if it’s due to seizure activity.
The only definitive way to determine if your child is having seizures is to perform an electroencephalogram (EEG). During this non-invasive procedure leads are placed on your child’s head to gather information about the electrical activity in the brain. If abnormal activity is noted, then that is a signal that your child is having seizures.
What Are the Symptoms of Seizures?
When you envision a seizure, it’s not uncommon to think of a stiffened body and intense convulsions. However, these stereotypical seizures are rare. Here are more common symptoms of seizures.
- Loss of consciousness
- Staring spells
- Nausea or dizziness
- Loss of focus
- Disrupted sleep
- Rapid eye movements or excessive blinking
- Involuntary body movements
- Unusual sensations
- Anxiousness or changes in mood
- Confusion or disorientation
What’s tricky is many of these symptoms can very easily be explained by something else, including autism. So it can be difficult to understand if your child is having small seizures (focal seizures) or if the behaviors are a manifestation of autism.
If you’re concerned that your child is having seizures you should contact a neurologist or an epileptologist.
What Are the After-Effects of a Seizure?
The time immediately following a seizure is known as the postictal period (recovery period). During this time, the brain needs time to recover after the abnormal electrical brain activity. Your child will probably feel pretty out of it so make sure they’re safe and able to rest and recover.
Before, during, or after a seizure your child may be at risk of injury from falling. Additionally, seizures can lead to an increased risk of brain injury, memory issues, and developmental delays. Aspiration – breathing mouth contents into the lungs – is also a concern if your child has a seizure when they’re eating. Lastly, a less obvious risk associated with seizures is hyperthermia – overheating. During a seizure your child’s body is going through a lot. The muscle contractions and extreme movement can cause their bodies to overheat.
As you can imagine, treating seizures requires the expertise of a neurologist or an epileptologist. However, there are integrative treatments that can help as well. I discuss these interventions in Part 2 of my Seizures and Autism series.
Be gentle with yourself. You’re doing a great job.
I hope this information has been helpful to you as part of creating Your Autism Game Plan.
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