Seizures in Autistic Children: How to Recognize the Signs and Symptoms

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When you hear the term, seizure, most people have an image of what is typically known as a grand mal seizure or tonic-clonic seizure. During this type of seizure the affected individual loses consciousness and there is usually a period of violent muscle contractions and convulsions. But what most people don't know is that there are many other types of seizures. Some seizures do not involve convulsions or even a loss of consciousness. The Epilepsy Foundation   identifies two major types of seizures: Generalized seizures which affect the entire brain and partial seizures which affect only a part of the brain. Yet within these classifications there exist a multitude of subtypes. If you look in the literature you will discover that there may be as many as 30-40 different types of seizures. You can review the long list of these subtypes of seizures on the Epilepsy Therapy Project website.

One of the potential problems in identifying seizures is unawareness of the wide variations in symptoms. Another difficulty is posed when you only witness part of the seizure as was the case when our son Max had a seizure at home but we only saw the end part.   In this post I am going to share some of my newfound knowledge of how to recognize those early signs of a seizure in a child or teen who has autism.

Please note: I am writing this post from my perspective as a parent and caretaker. I am not a medical professional. The only person who can diagnose seizures or epilepsy in your child is your child's doctor or neurologist.

If you have a child who is on the autism spectrum it is especially important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of seizure activity. The reason is that a good percentage of children with autism will develop seizures during adolescence. One estimate comes from Dr. Marcie Hall, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist of the University Hospitals Case Medical Center. Dr. Hall cites research which suggests that approximately 25 percent of children with autism also have a seizure disorder. This is a particularly high estimate but I am guessing that the percentage may actually be higher as there are many autistic children and teens with undiagnosed seizures. It has been my personal experience that seizures may be especially difficult to identify in the child or teen with autism having impaired communication skills. They may not always be able to tell you how they are feeling and what some may believe to be lapses in attention my actually be seizures.

The following are symptoms of seizures that we observed in our teen with autism:

  • Vocalizations or odd gurgling sounds before onset of seizure. Sometimes these loud vocalizations are called an epileptic cry. Other people may moan, yell, or repeat words.

  • Shallow breathing and/or breathing which stops for a short time.

  • Grayish-blue pallor to face. Lips may turn blue.

  • Complete loss of muscle control-like a floppy doll.

  • Lack of responsiveness to sensory stimuli. Will not respond to name or physically moving them.

  • Biting of tongue or lips.

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

  • If seizure happens during sleep, eyes may open wide without blinking. The pupils may appear fixed and staring straight ahead.

  • Following a seizure the individual may appear confused, dazed, and disoriented.

  • After a seizure your child may be extremely tired and want to sleep. When my son had his first major seizure he slept for 12 hours that evening.

  • Lack of memory of seizure episode.

As stated previously there are a multitude of seizure symptoms. Each person with seizures may exhibit vastly different symptoms. It is also possible for one person to have more than one type of seizure.

Other seizure symptoms include: Muscle jerks and contractions, convulsions, nausea or vomiting, repetitive movements, sudden drops to the floor, feelings of déjà-vu, staring spells, nodding or dropping of the head, involuntary movements of the mouth, blinking or eye fluttering, speech difficulties, irritability or aggression prior to seizure, and visual disturbances. This list is in no way complete. You may find a more thorough list of seizure symptoms on the Epilepsy Therapy Project website.

We are going to continue our series on autism and seizures by discussing what actions to take in the event that your child has a seizure. If you suspect that your child may be having seizures please seek prompt medical attention. If your child does have a seizure disorder and is diagnosed promptly, the sooner he or she can be treated. If your child or teen has just been diagnosed with seizures or epilepsy, remember that you are not alone. There is help, there is support, and there is treatment.

You can read more about Max and Me on our blog:   The Autism Express