Pediatric specialists discuss connections between autism spectrum disorders and seizures

Research shows that it is more common for children with autism spectrum disorder to have epilepsy and experience seizures and it is more common for children with epilepsy to have autism spectrum disorder. The Autism Spectrum Disorder and Seizures Clinic at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital is specially designed to diagnose, treat and manage patients with both disorders.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined as life-long developmental disorders of the brain with variable degree of severity. About 1 in 54 children in the United States have been diagnosed with ASD and it has been found that up to one-third of children on the autism spectrum are shown to develop epilepsy.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is defined as two unprovoked seizures or one unprovoked seizure with a high probability of recurrence. Many things can cause epilepsy including genetic disorders, infections, immune disorders and genetic causes. Structural causes like trauma and stroke can also lead to epilepsy. Epilepsy is diagnosed and treated by pediatric neurologists or an epileptologist who is a pediatric neurologist that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of seizures and epilepsy.

What makes diagnosing seizures in children with ASD challenging?

Children with ASD may have stereotypies, which are repetitive movements or sounds such as body-rocking, hand-flapping, head-nodding, or pacing. It is these abnormal movements that may make caregivers question whether their child is having a seizure.

The abnormal movements can either fall in the movement disorder category or be due to behavioral difficulties, or due to communications and cognitive deficits. This is why the experts sought to create the Autism Spectrum Disorder and Epilepsy Clinic. When both an epileptologist and a developmental and behavioral pediatrician are able to see the patient at the same time, they are able to develop a complete diagnosis. This limits the number of times the family will need to see a doctor to arrive at a multi-disciplinary approach to diagnosis and treatment. Also, it’s important that seizures are treated as soon as possible as undiagnosed or repeated seizures can result in adverse effects on the brain.

What are some indicators of seizures?

Caregivers should pay close attention to the child’s behavior. Staring episodes, body stiffening, rhythmic shaking, and loss of attention with the inability to quickly snap out of it, can all be signs of a seizure. It’s always helpful if caregivers can capture any of this behavior on video to share with the clinic.

Does this clinic offer video visit appointments?

Yes. Video visits have proven to be an effective format, as some patients with autism are uncomfortable in the unfamiliar environment of the exam room. Watching the patients where they are most comfortable allows for a more comprehensive view of the patient.

Emily Doll

Emily Doll, MD

Emily Doll, MD, is a highly skilled pediatric neurologist who specializes in childhood epilepsy. Dr. Doll also diagnoses and treats children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

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Peter Joseph Smith, MD, MA

Peter Joseph Smith, MD, MA

Peter J. Smith, MD, MA, is board certified in two sub-specialties of pediatrics, neurodevelopmental disabilities (NDD) and developmental-behavioral pediatrics (DBP).

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