Scientists have long known that there is a connection between autism spectrum disorders and epilepsy. Nearly one-third of all people on the autism spectrum have epilepsy, and about 5 percent of people who are diagnosed with epilepsy in childhood are also diagnosed with some form of autism.
It only makes sense that the two conditions are related. Epilepsy is a brain disorder that can cause seizures — ranging from the most common type, grand mal, to seizures that cause any combination stiffening, jerking, twitching or unresponsiveness. Autism, while not yet completely understood, is also a brain disorder that causes delays in language development, social impairments and the development of repetitive, rigid behaviors.
Some researchers believe that the brain abnormalities present in autism can actually contribute to seizures, as the “overloaded” brain neurons created by the abnormalities can lead to imbalances that lead to seizures.
Individuals with epilepsy, regardless of whether they have autism, often successfully manage their seizures with medication. However, until recently, much of the limited research about the connection between epilepsy and autism has been focused on children. Adults with epilepsy, who experience many of the same issues with socialization as children, and may in fact be on the autism spectrum, are often been left without a diagnosis or treatment plan, and thus forced to live with the characteristics and behaviors of their condition without help.
New research, though, could change all of that.
Understanding Epilepsy in Adults
For many adults with epilepsy, life presents a series of challenges. Not only do they have to live with frightening seizures, which can potentially cause injury, but also there is often a stigma about the condition that can lead to feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem and frustration. Studies also show that epilepsy is linked to lower academic achievement, most likely often due to memory and attention impairments; most patients are an average of two years behind grade level in reading and mathematics. In addition, epileptic seizures can interfere with the neurological functioning of the brain that controls social interactions. As a result, people with epilepsy often struggle with socially due to both psychological and biological factors.
In fact, according to the findings of a study at the University of Bath in England released in May 2014, all adults with epilepsy have some of the traits of autism and Asperger’s, including difficulty in social situations, repetitive behaviors, difficulty communications and restricted, almost obsessive interests. Doctor SallyAnn Wakeford’s research found that those adults with epilepsy and social difficulties lacked certain somatic markers in the brain; those on the Autism spectrum also lack these markers. Unsurprisingly, among epileptics, the more often one has seizures, and the greater their severity, the greater the likelihood of social difficulties.
The study was unable to determine whether the epileptic adults were predisposed to autism before their epilepsy began, or whether the epilepsy lead to the brain markers that mimic those of autism. Regardless, for adults who have been living with epilepsy their entire lives, there is now at least some hope of improving quality of life. The behaviors that have often been misunderstood, simply chalked up to their epilepsy and not treated, or even worse, gone undiagnosed, now have at least a theoretical explanation.
Given that a high percentage of adults with epilepsy are unable to work due to their condition — by some estimates, almost half of epileptic adults are unemployed — or sustain fulfilling personal relationship, the fact that some autism treatments may be effective at improving social functioning is welcome news.
Until now, the range of treatment options for adults with epilepsy has been somewhat limited, with most relying on medication to control their seizures without addressing the additional issues of their condition. Quality of life has suffered, since most patients do not receive the same level of intervention and therapy as those who have been diagnosed with autism. There are far more treatments available to those with autism, and with greater access to these options, adults may be better able to manage their symptoms effectively while also reducing the stigma that comes along with having epilepsy.
In addition, this new information can also benefit children who have been diagnosed with autism. Experts recommend that children who have been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum also be tested by a pediatric neurologist to determine whether epilepsy is also present. By proactively recognizing and treating epilepsy in children, parents and teachers may be able to prevent seizures and the brain “misfires” that lead certain behaviors or challenges common among autistic children.
The field of brain research continues to explore the causes and treatment of neurological disorders like autism and epilepsy. As understanding grows, so will the range of treatment options and the likelihood that we’ll find a cure, or at least a more effective means of preventing these conditions and managing them so that patients can have improved quality of life. In the meantime, adults with epilepsy can now explore new treatment options and address those issues that have plagued them most of their lives.