Epilepsy & Seizures

  • Epilepsy is the tendency to have recurrent seizures. A seizure is a sudden disturbance in the electrical activity of the brain that results in a change of movement, consciousness, behavior, speech, or thinking.
  • People with developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and autism are at a significantly higher risk for seizures – the likelihood of seizures increases with the severity of the disability.

Having a seizure does not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy. One out 10 people have just one seizure in their lifetime. At least two unprovoked seizures are generally required for an epilepsy diagnosis.

Signs & Symptoms:

  • Tonic-Clonic (grand mal) – Stiffening and jerking, loss of consciousness; body becomes stiff and rigid then jerks and convulsions start. Temporarily suspended or altered breathing is common. Only lasts a few minutes followed by confusion or sleepiness.
  • Absence (petit mal) – characterized by a blank stare/look of daydreaming, lasts only a few seconds. May include chewing or blinking. Awareness is lost but returns quickly.
  • Complex partial – may begin with a trance-like stare and random activities are common such as picking at clothing or lip-smacking as well as twitching in a certain area of the body (usually the same set of actions occur with each seizure). The person is generally unresponsive. Only lasts a few minutes.


Common Triggers:

  • Flashing lights, being startled
  • Stress, anxiety, fear
  • Drugs/alcohol
  • Caffeine, sugar
  • Fever, illness, poor nutrition
  • Lack of sleep
  • Hormones
  • Low blood sugar

Seizure First Aid:

  1. Stay calm
  2. Protect the person from injury – remove nearby objects and put something soft under person's head
  3. Roll the person onto his or her side
  4. DO NOT put anything into the mouth of a person having a seizure OR try to stop the seizure
  5. Time the seizure – if it lasts longer than 5 minutes or if the person is injured, call 911
  6. Stay with the person until the seizure is over

Seizure First Aid (PDF)

Seek further medical assistance if:

  1. The seizure lasts more than 5 minutes
  2. It is a first-time seizure
  3. Another seizure starts shortly after one ends
  4. The person is pregnant, injured, or has diabetes
  5. The seizure happens in water

No need to seek further medical assistance if:

  1. You know the person has epilepsy and
  2. There are no signs of physical distress and
  3. The seizure ends under 5 minutes and
  4. Consciousness returns without further incident

Source: Epilepsy Association of Western New York (2011)