Dr Wakeford’s work explored the self-reported experiences of adults with epilepsy who had no history of autism. She already suspected that these adults might show traits of autism or Asperger syndrome. Autism and Asperger syndrome are both conditions belonging to the autistic spectrum – a range of conditions with similar effects on people’s behaviour.
Traits of autism can show as difficulties with social interaction. People with autistic traits might have trouble interpreting other people’s emotions, for example. Sometimes they might find it difficult to communicate. These traits can also show as ‘repetitive interests’. People with autistic spectrum disorders might become obsessed with certain things, like car registration numbers, toys or particular people.
Dr Wakeford’s research involved asking these adults with epilepsy to report any of their own behaviours that matched these traits. Every adult with epilepsy involved in the study showed a higher than normal level of these autistic traits. This was the case no matter what kind of epilepsy each person had. The autistic traits were most pronounced in adults with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE).
What isn't clear from the study is exactly what the relationship between epilepsy and autistic traits actually is. The people in the study may have always had them, even before developing epilepsy. Alternatively, the development of epilepsy may somehow be linked more directly.
That may be supported by the fact that the autistic traits were most pronounced in people with TLE. Drug treatment is less effective in controlling TLE seizures. That might suggest that it is the uncontrolled seizure activity that is linked with more severe autistic traits.
Dr Wakeford hopes that her discovery may lead to better treatment for people with epilepsy. She said: “Epilepsy has a history of cultural stigma, however the more we understand about the psychological consequences of epilepsy the more we can remove the stigma and mystique of the condition.
“These findings mean that adults with epilepsy get access to better services, as there is a wider range of treatments available for those with autism conditions.”
For more information, read the full research findings at the website of the University of Bath.