How epilepsy affects child development

As we are celebrating Global Day of Epilepsy Awareness – Purple Day today, we thought we should partake in the international grassroots effort dedicated to increasing awareness about epilepsy worldwide. For you parents, we would like to talk about how a diagnosis of epilepsy can affect your child’s development and what help you will need.

What is Epilepsy:

Epilepsy is a condition caused by a disturbance in nerve cell activity, that can occur due to a genetic disorder or by a brain injury or trauma. Epilepsy causes seizures, which is a rush of electrical activity in the brain. It can be effectively managed through medication and other strategies.

Before we get into the domino effect that epilepsy sets up, here’s a quick 5-pointer first-aid solution if your child has a seizure and you need to take care of them until they get medical help:

epilepsy first aid steps infographic

Impact on Development:

Coming to terms with a diagnosis of epilepsy can be overwhelming for parents. It often raises various questions and looming uncertainties. Parents often scramble to understand if and how epilepsy will impact their child’s growth, development or learning. The extent to which seizures can affect learning and development depends on the frequency of seizures, their location and how much of the brain is involved. Equally important factors are the age of onset, getting an early diagnosis and effective management through treatment.

The human brain has an impressive ability to learn and relearn, although it might require time. And this ability to adapt diminishes with time. Here is where we understand the importance of getting an early diagnosis and intervention, that can help the child overcome the challenges and reach their full potential. Therefore in treating and managing epilepsy, doctors and therapists focus on not just the physiological effects but also the social and psychological aspects of the child’s development.

Years of research has well documented that epilepsy in children is associated with some challenges, which could be academic achievement, behavioural, emotional adjustment or socialization.

Learning Challenges

Although not exclusive to epilepsy, nor a definite possibility, research has shown that there is a prevalence of learning issues and other developmental problems among those with epilepsy. Again, the existence and the extent of these issues depends on the severity of the seizures and other factors discussed earlier. Although these cognitive problems are not unique to epilepsy, there has been a growing recognition of their prevalence in children with epilepsy. While over half of the children experience difficulty in learning and problems in memory, a lesser number have been found to have problems with the speed of processing new information, with attention and concentration. Due to these factors, even though the overall intellectual ability of these children is comparable to the typical childhood population, they are more likely to underachieve academically. Therefore it is vital that teaching and learning methods are designed to accommodate these needs, by including strategies that can improve the child’s performance at school.  

Impact on Behaviour

Emotional and behavioural challenges have been observed in children with epilepsy. Some of the common issues seen include irritability, hyperactivity, aggression and increased anxiety. While the incidence of behaviour problems is higher, the emotional issues are less severe although they need just as much attention.

In the period leading up to or post a seizure, children might behave abnormally. They can be anxious, irritable or experience feelings of confusion. Although some of the behaviour issues crop up from a seizure or epilepsy itself, some happen because of the reaction to it. This can be from parents, teachers, playmates and other family members.

Emotionally, the child might feel frightened about having a seizure or feel isolated from their playmates, which in turn can impact their mood and attitude.

Impact On Socialization

The impact on socialization rarely comes from the seizures or having epilepsy itself but more from the concern for the child’s safety and acceptance. Parents may not feel comfortable allowing the child to participate in regular school/play activities, fearing their safety, which might increase the child’s sense of isolation and feeling different from the rest. The insensitivity and lack of awareness among people might also act as stressors. Some children might be teased or bullied or excluded from activities. Therefore parents must work with teachers and the school to make sure their child has positive experiences and receives additional support to help them adapt.

Getting Help

Epilepsy is a complex disorder that can impact your child’s learning, behaviour and development. In treating epilepsy, we must adopt a whole-child approach. This means that while the focal point of treatment will be to control the seizures through medication, it is equally important to help the child overcome challenges they might face in learning, socialization, communication and development on the whole. As with any intervention, it requires a collaborative effort from doctors, therapists, educators and the family affected. It is also important that your child’s school is aware of the challenges your child might face, so there can be a more conscious effort to make them comfortable.

It can be tremendously difficult coming to terms with a diagnosis of epilepsy. As a parent, finding a way to come to terms with your child’s diagnosis is the first step towards moving ahead. This will help you feel less anxious about the uncertainties and nudge you to focus more on helping him cope. When your child is first diagnosed with epilepsy, it might be a daunting task to find a balance between keeping them safe and allowing them to be independent. Experience will indicate that ensuring their independence will positively impact their wellbeing. The more they can do things like the others, the less, they and the people around them will see epilepsy as a problem.

About 1% of the population in India is affected by epilepsy. Getting the right diagnosis and starting the right intervention for the individual is of utmost importance. If you have a child with epilepsy and need an intervention program for them, get in touch with us today. We are here to help.

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