On Friday April 1, the Chattanooga Autism Center held their annual conference for families of children with autism at the Chattanooga Convention Center. The Epilepsy Foundation was proud to be a vendor, handing out copies of an article that ran in a 2009 issue of Epilepsy USA titled: "Autism & Epilepsy: An Uneasy Pair." About 1 in 110 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), according to the CDC.
Most people do not realize there is a link between autism and epilepsy. Dr. Sarah Spence, a clincian and researcher at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda, who studies the co-occurence of the disorders, estimates that 20 - 25% on individuals with ASD have seizures, though pinpointing the exact number is difficult.
"You don't see one type of epilepsy in autism, or one age of onset, or one type of seizure," Spence was quoted in the article as saying.
Scientists do not understand why the two disorders occur together so frequently. A key question is whether one causes the other. In some rare situations, that does appear to be the case. Children who have infantile spasms are very likely to develop ASD if the seizures and abnormal electrical activity in the brain are not treated effectively.
Even more surprising is that several studies suggest that as many as half of all children with autism or ASD have seizure like EEG patterns, even though they don't show outward signs of a seizure.
A more recently published article in the online journal Epilepsia quotes Dr. Orrin Devinsky, director of NYU's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, as saying, "Among those with autism who have epilepsy, in many cases it is difficult to control with medication." Devinsky found that overall, 33.9% of the patients had treatment resistent epilepsy (defined as having failed two trials of tolerated drugs) and 27.5% were seizure free. The other 38.6% had insufficient information or infrequent seizures and were not placed into a category.
"We only have good data of 2/3 of the clinical trial patients," said Devinsky, "And of the 2/3 over 50% have intractable epilepsy."
What does all of this mean? If you know a child with autism and epilepsy, be sure to encourage them to see a specialist as their seizures are more likely to be difficult to treat.