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Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain, causing repeated seizures that are sometimes known as ‘fits’. Epilepsy usually begins during childhood; however it can start at any age.

A seizure can occur when there is a sudden burst of intense electrical activity that disrupts the electrical impulses within the brain. This means that the cells in the brain, known as neurones, that use electrical impulses to communicate, have their messages mixed up and disrupted, thus resulting in the brain and body behaving differently. This is what an epileptic seizure is.

The severity of the seizures differs from person to person, and what happens during one will depend on which part of the brain the epileptic activity begins in. Some people may have partial seizures affecting only a part of their body, whilst others may lose consciousness and have convulsions (uncontrolled shaking and movement of the body).

Epilepsy can happen for many reasons, although usually it is the result of some kind of brain damage.

Epilepsy and Learning Disabilities

Statistically, epilepsy is more common in people with a learning disability than those in the general population.

  • Around 30% of people with a mild to moderate learning disability will also have epilepsy
  • The more severe the learning disability, the more likely it is for someone to have epilepsy

Epileptic seizures can take many different forms, and they affect awareness, movement or behaviour. For example, complex focal (partial) seizures can include symptoms such as repetitive movements without purpose like fiddling with clothing and lip smacking. Confusion additionally is also seen in seizures, and many people have periods of confusion following seizures.

Because having a difficulty communicating or sometimes appearing confused, can be part of a learning disability, it can sometimes be hard to tell if a person with a learning disability is having a seizure.

What occurs when someone with a learning disability is having a seizure will not necessarily be any different from someone who does not have a learning disability. However, for some people with a learning disability, their seizures may have one of the following different symptoms:

• their seizures may be more frequent, or go on for a longer time period

• their seizures may be too complex to put into a typical seizure 'category'

• they might have more than one type of seizure, or could have one type of seizure closely following another type of seizure

• their seizures may include subtle movements or behaviours that can be difficult to recognise as a seizure, sometimes described as 'atypical'.

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