Challenges remain to diagnosing, treating autism

Autism is a national epidemic, yet challenges remain in making the right diagnosis and identifying the right tools to make a diagnosis.  Adding to the confusion, many children who place on the autism spectrum also may have other neurological disorders, and sometimes, other neurological disorders can even be mistaken for autism.

Recently, I spoke to Caren Haines, a registered nurse who wrote a book about her own experience with her son, and I was very interested to find that a certain type of epileptic seizure can sometimes be mistaken for or even produce behaviors seen in children on the autism spectrum.

Haines was concerned when – at age 2 – her son started suffering from “staring spells” and exhibiting other odd behaviors.  A neuropsychiatrist diagnosed him with autism and partial epilepsy.  What Haines had thought were merely staring spells were actually silent seizures.

According to experts, as many as 50 percent of people diagnosed with autism may suffer from seizures.  Partial epilepsy is often a sub-clinical disorder that accompanies other conditions and can be difficult to identify in a clinical setting.

Patients, or parents, should look out for the following symptoms:

-Brief but noticeable staring spells that can last as little as five seconds (Haines’ son was having up to 50 per day)

-Facial grimacing

-Abnormal eye blinking

The symptoms may start out subtle but then develop into more complex patterns, according to Haines.

A standard EEG cannot detect this type of epilepsy because the bio-electrical discharge responsible for the seizures is too deep in the temporal lobe.

Instead, neurologists use a Dense-Array EEG or a dEEG to diagnose patients.  Treating the epilepsy may also relieve some symptoms of the patient’s other conditions - such as autism.  Haines said in a couple cases, patients have actually ‘lost’ the diagnosis of autism after their epilepsy was treated.

According to Haines, her own son made massive behavioral strides after his seizures were treated.  The experience inspired her to write a book, called “Silently Seizing: Common, Unrecognized and Frequently Missed Seizures and Their Potentially Damaging Impact on Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders.”  The book can be found on and's Chris Dougherty contributed to this article.