Seizures & Autism: Cognitive, Social & Behavioral Impacts

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

Seizure disorders can have negative impacts on students' social, cognitive and behavioral performance. This lesson will show how to identify and address these issues.

Another Challenge for Children With Autism

Tara is a newly minted special education teacher. The preschool class she teaches has become a bit of a roller coaster ride since Ray, who has autism, joined it. She has learned how to help him communicate, do daily tasks, interact with his classmates, and be as independent as possible. It's been challenging, but she loves him, and her other students are learning from him as well.

Recently, though, Tara has noticed some new, odd behavior. Ray loves to take things apart and try to reassemble them, but now instead, he sometimes just sits and stares, not responding when she speaks. Then, suddenly, he jerks, gulps audibly, or starts blinking his eyes rapidly. After a few moments, he seems to relax, and occasionally dozes off sitting on his mat.

Identifying the Condition

She realizes that this is what his parents had told her about. They had confirmed it using a test called an EEG (electroencephalogram), and the results showed seizure activity in Ray's brain.

Ray wasn't having what we usually think of with seizures, that is, a grand mal seizure, where a person's muscles contract forcefully and consciousness is lost. Rather, he was showing signs of absence seizures, or 'petit mal' seizures, where there is abnormal brain activity for just a few seconds. They aren't as noticeable, but are fairly common.

As many as a third of people on the autism spectrum have some type of seizure disorder. They most often appear either in the preschool or teenage years, so Ray is at the right age for them to start.

Effects in the Classroom

Tara went home and did some research. She learned that the abnormal electrical impulses in the brain can damage the cells and cause loss of skills already learned, such as language and word memory. Recent studies have found that seizure discharges in the brain often occur in the areas that manage social skills, something children with autism already have a great deal of difficulty with.

A child's ability to learn can decline dramatically. Seizures can cause a child with autism to have even more difficulty with visual-motor skills, sensory perception, and recall. She thought that might explain why Ray wasn't enjoying taking toys and gadgets apart as much as he used to.

Seizures can also cause children with autism to lose their ability to function socially. Even into adulthood, they may have more trouble interacting with others, and end up socially isolated even more so than autism causes. They may be less able to keep a job and/or less likely to marry.

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