Epilepsy and autism

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is like an electrical storm in the brain. There are many kinds of storms, some of which simply create difficulties such as problems with memory, speech or movement, others which cause involuntary movements, or laughter, hallucinations or fear, and others which cause people to lose consciousness. Some people lose consciousness while standing or sitting, while others fall and tremble, or bite their tongues. Epilepsy is not contagious. The person cannot control it with willpower, but there are medications that can help most people with epilepsy. Autistic people are more likely to have epilepsy than those without.

What is epilepsy?

The different parts of our brain communicate with each other by sending electrical signals. Epilepsy occurs when there is an electrical “storm” in one or more areas of the brain. Communication between the different sections of the brain becomes scrambled, causing epileptic seizures.

Link to autism

Between 5% and 46% of autistic people have epilepsy.
Around 30% of epileptics meet the diagnostic criteria for autism.

The two conditions have common genetic origins, meaning that certain genes present in autism are also present in epilepsy. Some people with epilepsy will develop autistic traits during the periods of their lives when epileptic seizures are most frequent, i.e. early childhood and adolescence. These people will “lose their autistic traits” when the seizures are under control, either because they are adults, or because they are taking medications called anticonvulsants. There are three reasons for this phenomenon.


The genes responsible for autistic hypersensitivity have a role to play in the onset of epileptic seizures. These genes are more active during periods of frequent seizures.


As epilepsy is more common in childhood and adolescence, people with epilepsy lose opportunities to learn social norms by playing with others. As a result, they appear socially “awkward”.


Partial seizures (see below) cause communication and coordination difficulties similar to some autistic traits.

For further information

The brain communicates using electrical currents called nerve impulses. Nerve impulses can be thought of as relay runners. Runners cross neurons (brain cells) and pass the baton via neurotransmitters to the next runners in the next neurons. The brain's relay racetrack is so complex that neurotransmitters enable runners to pass the baton to the "right" next runner. Each neurotransmitter can only be caught by runners who are set up to run in the "right" direction. Each brain has its own unique map with its own race tracks and its own rules for the circulation of nerve impulses. Both epileptics and autistics have variations in the genes responsible for neuron development (i.e. race tracks in the brain) and neurotransmitter production (i.e. relay between runners). These differences totally change the rules of relay races compared to neurotypicals. Although autism and epilepsy are two different conditions, some of the rules of the race will be more similar between the brain of a person with epilepsy and the brain of a person with autism than between the brain of a person with epilepsy and the brain of a neurotypical person, for example.


Epilepsy manifests itself in the form of seizures. There are partial seizures (simple and complex) and generalized seizures (tonic-clonic and absence).

Simple partial seizures – Only one area of the brain has a seizure.

The person will not be able to use the storm brain area, which can lead to

Complex partial seizures – Some areas of the brain in turmoil

Generalized seizures – several storm zones on both sides of the brain


Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer