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Seizures in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

“Is it common for children with Asperger syndrome and high functioning autism to have epileptic seizures? What signs should parents look for if they think their child may be having mild seizures?”

Some of the brain irregularities that are associated with autism spectrum disorders can contribute to seizures. These irregularities can cause changes in brain activity by interrupting neurons in the brain. Neurons are cells that process and transmit information and send signals to the rest of the body. So overloads or instabilities in the activity of these neurons can result in imbalances that cause seizures.

The reported prevalence of epilepsy among children on the autism spectrum disorders ranges from 11% to 39%. The prevalence of epilepsy was higher in studies that included teens and young adults, because the onset of epilepsy in autism spectrum disorders has 2 peaks: one before 5 years of age and another in the teenage years.

Epileptiform abnormalities on electroencephalography are common in kids on the spectrum, with reported frequencies ranging from 10% to 72%. Due to the increased prevalence of seizures in this population, a high index of clinical suspicion needs to be maintained, and electroencephalography should be considered when there are clinical spells that might represent seizures.

Characteristic symptoms include:
  • Facial twitching
  • Involuntary jerking of limbs
  • Marked and unexplained irritability or aggressiveness
  • Regression in normal development
  • Severe headaches
  • Sleepiness or sleep disturbances
  • Stiffening of muscles
  • Unexplained confusion
  • Unexplained staring spells

There are several types of seizures, each with somewhat different symptoms:
  • Absence seizures can be difficult to recognize. Also known as petit mal seizures, they are marked by periods of unresponsiveness. The child may stare into space. He may or may not exhibit jerking or twitching.
  • Atonic seizures involve sudden limpness, or loss of muscle tone. The child may fall or drop her head involuntarily.
  • Clonic seizures involve repeated jerking movements on both sides of the body. 
  • Myoclonic seizures involve jerking or twitching of the upper body, arms or legs. 
  • Tonic seizures involve muscle stiffening alone. 
  • Tonic-clonic seizures are the most common. Also known as gran mal seizures, they produce muscle stiffening followed by jerking. Gran mal seizures also produce loss of consciousness.

If you suspect your child may be having seizures, find a neurologist that specializes in seizure disorders. The neurologist will order an electroencephalogram, which is a non-invasive process that involves the placing of electrodes on the child’s head in order to monitor activity in the brain. By analyzing the activity patterns, the neurologist can determine if the child is having seizures.

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