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Autistic Children with Epilepsy are Often Sensitive to Light

Strobes from Fire Alarms Could Trigger Seizures

For about 3% of the three million Americans with epilepsy, exposure to flashing lights at certain intensities or to certain visual patterns can trigger seizures. However, when epilepsy is combined with autism, researchers have found photosensitivity to be much more common.

Epilepsy is common in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Nearly a third of patients with an ASD have epileptic seizures. Recently, the American Epilepsy Society was presented with a recommendation that children who present to epilepsy clinics for treatment of seizures also be routinely screened for signs of autism and other developmental delays.

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston reviewed the records of children diagnosed with autism between December 2010 and May 2011. To be included in the study, the children were to have had an electroencephalogram (EEG) either prior to or during the search period to determine the presence or absence of photoparoxysmal response (PPR) to intermittent photic stimulation.

During the EEG, sensors are attached to the patient’s scalp to monitor the electrical activity of the brain in various conditions, including light stimulation. An abnormal response indicates the presence of photosensitivity.

Dr. Jill Miller-Horn reported that the team found a “high overall incidence of photosensitivity in 25% of children over 15 years of age with autism spectrum disorder, and an even higher rate of 29.4% in that age group of children who had both epilepsy and autism.” She noted that this finding had not been previously reported.

Interestingly, not only flickering lights can trigger photosensitive epilepsies in children with autism, but also self-stimulatory behavior such as had flapping in front of the face.

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Other sources of photosensitive epilepsy triggers include television screens, computer monitors, certain video games, intense strobe lights such as those on a fire alarm, and natural light especially when shimmering off water, flickering through trees or through the slats of Venetian blinds.

Dr. Miller-Horn notes that larger-scale studies are needed to confirm her team’s findings.

For those with photosensitive epilepsy, the Epilepsy Foundation recommends taking the following actions to avoid exposure to potential triggers:

Television Screens
• Watch television in a well-lit room to reduce the contrast between light from the set and light in the room.
• Reduce the brightness of the screen.
• Keep as far back from the screen as possible.
• Use the remote control to change channels on the TV so you won’t have to get too close to the set.
• Avoid watching for long periods of time.
• Wear polarized sunglasses while viewing television to reduce glare.

Video Games
• Sit at least 2 feet from the screen in a well-lit room.
• Reduce the brightness of the screen.
• Do not let children play videogames if they are tired.
• Take frequent breaks from the games and look away from the screen every once in a while. Do not close and open eyes while looking at the screen – blinking may facilitate seizures in sensitive individuals.
• Cover one eye while playing, alternating which eye is covered at regular intervals.
• Turn the game off if strange or unusual feelings or body jerks develop.

Computer Monitors
• Use a flicker-free monitor (LCD display or flat screen).
• Use a monitor glare guard.
• Wear non-glare glasses to reduce glare from the screen.
• Take frequent breaks from tasks involving the computer.

Exposure to Strong Environmental Lights
Cover one eye (either one) with one hand until the stimulus is over. Closing both eyes or turning your eyes in another direction will not help.

Sources Include:
American Epilepsy Society (AES), 65th annual meeting, Abstract 3.109
Epilepsy Foundation



Thanks for sharing these tips, which I find very helpful for parents caring for autistic children. Thanks to the Epilepsy Foundation for their tips as well.