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Epilepsy and Developmental Delays

Last updated: January 2023

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes seizures. The condition affects about 6 out of every 1,000 children aged 0 to 17.1

Some children with epilepsy have developmental delays. About 30 percent of children with epilepsy have other developmental problems. Children with a developmental disability are 4 times more likely to have a seizure by age 5.2,3

Not all children with epilepsy have developmental delays. However, studies have found that children with epilepsy are more likely to have learning problems. This may look like trouble:3,4

  • Remembering
  • Staying organized
  • Concentrating

These issues can affect school performance, behavior, and social skills.3,4

How epilepsy affects the developing brain

Seizures impact the structure of a child's brain and the way that it works. They can also reduce brain volume, which affects thinking and learning.3

Learning happens as a result of connections between nerve cells in the brain. These nerve cells are called neurons. When people have seizures, their brains experience abnormal electrical activity. This unusual activity disrupts the connections between neurons.5

The effects on learning depend on how often seizure frequency and other factors. In some cases, epilepsy may have little or no impact. In others, it can greatly affect a child's learning potential.5

Impact on learning

As many as half of children with epilepsy have learning problems. These problems range from mild to serious. Epilepsy affects key skills that the child needs for success in school and beyond, such as:5

  • Speech and language: Children with epilepsy may have trouble recognizing speech sounds. They may also struggle to grasp what has been said. It may be hard for them to speak clearly or express their ideas.
  • Attention: At least 40 percent of children with epilepsy have attention problems. Some may have trouble focusing. Anti-seizure drugs can also cause attention issues. Adjusting the dosage usually helps.
  • Memory: Seizures disrupt the brain's ability to store and recall information. This can make it harder for children to remember things they have learned. They may also find it hard to apply lessons to other situations.
  • Problem-solving: Epilepsy can affect mental skills that help people plan and achieve their goals. When these skills are damaged, a child may have trouble solving problems and meeting challenges. This can lead to struggles in school or in communicating with others.

Impact on emotions, behavior, and social skills

Children with epilepsy may also struggle with:4

  • Emotions and behavior: Children may experience depression and anxiety. They may also be more prone to aggression and rage.
  • Social skills: Seizures make it harder for children to participate in physical and social activities. Missing out on these experiences can affect their social development.

Treatment and outcomes

Children's brains can relearn information they lost because of seizures. This process takes time. Early diagnosis and intervention are critical.5

Anti-seizure drugs can be effective in treating people with epilepsy. Often, these drugs control seizures well and have few side effects. If side effects occur, your child's doctor may lower the dosage or switch drugs. Surgeries and special diets have also been successful in some children.2

Seizure control improves quality of life. It can also help improve learning, social skills, and other areas. It may take several years to see these improvements. However, results are encouraging over the long term.6

Beyond seizure control, treatment means addressing all of a child's needs. Interventions may include speech, physical, and occupational therapy.5

It is important for everyone involved in a child's care to work together. This way, doctors, teachers, and families can create the best possible treatment plan.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The EpilepsyDisease.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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