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Seizures and Epilepsy—Autism Toolkit

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ICD10

  • F84.0

What are seizures?

Seizures are caused by an attack of too much activity in the brain. A child who has a seizure may lose consciousness (black out) for a short time; shake strongly all over his body; have unusual, repeated body movements; have “drop attacks”; have seizures in his sleep; or stare blankly into space.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is defined as 2 or more seizures when the child does not have a fever or another medical reason for the seizure.

How common are seizures in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

About 1 in 4 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has seizures. Seizures usually start in early childhood or the early teen years. Children with ASD who have a lower IQ or cannot speak have the highest risk for seizures.

How does a doctor diagnose seizures?

Children with ASD often have repetitive movements and staring episodes. A doctor can often tell which repetitive behaviors might be seizures. A test called electroencephalography (EEG) can record electrical activity in the brain and help a doctor check for seizures. Electroencephalography can record a seizure that happens only when the EEG equipment is on your child. The EEG cannot record seizures that happen at other times. Sometimes, it is necessary to do EEG over a longer period of time to see if movements or spells are seizures.

Should every child with ASD have electroencephalography?

Most children with ASD do not need EEG. A doctor will likely ask for an EEG if a child is having spells that the doctor thinks are seizures or if a child has recently lost language or other skills. Electroencephalography is usually done with the child awake and then asleep. There are different types of EEGs, some completed during a shorter visit to the hospital, others done overnight in the hospital or at home. The doctor will decide the type of EEG that is appropriate for each child.

How are seizures treated?

In most cases, medicines called anticonvulsants can help control seizures. These medicines can usually lower the number of seizures, but they cannot always get rid of them. Some children have EEG results that are not normal, but they do not have obvious seizures. It is not yet clear if in those situations anticonvulsants can help.

One of 2 specific types of cannabidiol oil (known as CBD oil) is now US Food and Drug Administration approved for treatment of seizures in children with 2 kinds of severe epilepsy (Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes). Cannabidiol oil is not approved for management of ASD in children who do not have these specific conditions.

For more information about seizures, contact the Epilepsy Foundation (www.epilepsyfoundation.org).

The information contained in this resource should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances. Original resource included as part of Caring for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Practical Resource Toolkit for Clinicians, 3rd Edition.

Inclusion in this resource does not imply an endorsement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP is not responsible for the content of the resources mentioned in this resource. Website addresses are as current as possible but may change at any time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not review or endorse any modifications made to this resource and in no event shall the AAP be liable for any such changes.

© 2020 American Academy of Pediatrics. All rights reserved.

Additional Resources

The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides information, support, and assistance to parents of children with disabilities, their professional partners, and their communities. We are committed to listening to and learning from families, and encouraging full participation in community life by all people, especially those with disabilities.
Committed to supporting siblings of people with disabilities.
Pediatric Special Needs Resources for Massachusetts Families 
The Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital assesses students and children ages 2 to 22 who have developmental difficulties and consults with their parents, teachers and care providers.

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