Epilepsy is more common in autistic people than in the general population with symptoms most likely to develop in the teenage years. 

Epilepsy is more likely to occur if someone in the family has the disorder. Autism is also more likely in families who have cases of epilepsy. Epilepsy and autism often occur together.

Scientists believe epilepsy and autism are related because they have found genes linked to both disorders. There are several genetic disorders that are linked to early-onset epilepsy and features of autism

  • Rett syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Tuberous sclerosis

Scientists believe that variations in certain genes along with other factors, such as chemical processes in the body and the environment, lead to the brain being ‘overactive’. 

Common symptoms of epilepsy in autism

Jump to: Common symptoms of epilepsy in autism Types of epileptic seizure

Common symptoms of epilepsy in autism

Epilepsy can occur before or after autism symptoms develop. 

Epilepsy causes people to have seizures. 

Signs that someone is having a seizure include

  • temporary confusion
  • a staring spell
  • uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs
  • loss of consciousness or awareness

Most autistic people with epilepsy have their first seizure as a teenager. In people without autism, the risk of epilepsy is greatest in a child’s first year.

Diagnosing epilepsy in autistic people is complicated because

  • stereotyped movements common to autism can be mistaken for epileptic seizures
  • autistic people might have difficulty tolerating tests for epilepsy such as brain scans

Types of epileptic seizure

1.    Focal seizures

These seizures start in one area on one side of the brain. The person having a focal seizure might experience 

  • involuntary jerking of a body part
  • tingling
  • dizziness
  • flashing lights

Things might look, smell, feel, taste or sound different. Their emotions might change. Sometimes the person might lose consciousness or awareness. They might stare into space or perform repetitive movements, such as hand rubbing or repetitive swallowing.

2.    Generalised seizures

These seizures affect both sides of the brain. There are six forms of generalised seizure

  • loss of awareness, staring into space or subtle body movements such as eye blinking (absence seizures)
  • stiffening of muscles, sometimes causing a person to fall to the ground (tonic seizures)
  • suddenly collapsing (atonic seizures)
  • rhythmic, jerking muscle movements, usually in the neck, face and arms (clonic seizures)
  • sudden brief jerks or twitches in the arms and legs (myoclonic seizures)
  • abrupt loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, and sometimes loss of bladder control or biting your tongue (tonic-clonic seizures)



So many of the unexpected and preventable deaths in the news are of people with autism and epilepsy. No-one ever said our son was more likely to die.

Parent

I am having a very hard time with my own epilepsy; a seizure at the wrong time in the wrong place could kill me and that terrifies me. It makes me worry for the future of my two girls, both of whom also have autism

Mum

What you can do about epilepsy

Jump to: What you can do about epilepsy Find out more

What you can do about epilepsy

Most people with epilepsy take anti-epileptic drugs. These drugs control the electrical activity in the brain that causes seizures and often need to be taken for a lifetime. There are many anti-epileptic drugs and your doctor will prescribe one depending on the type of seizures you are experiencing. 

Other treatment options include 

  • special diets
  • nerve stimulation
  • brain stimulation
  • brain surgery

We don’t know which drugs are effective for autistic people with epilepsy. Some may even be harmful. Research studies involving autistic people with and without epilepsy will improve our understanding of how to manage symptoms and prevent autistic people dying early.

Find out more

Read our leaflet on epilepsy and autism.