Adoptive Families Association of BC
AFABC Special Needs Database

Epilepsy is a condition in which recurrent electrical discharges in the brain disturb the normal functioning of the nervous system. These episodes of disturbance are called seizures. Seizures can involve a temporary loss of consciousness or temporary changes in behaviour. The exact changes of behaviour depend on the area of the brain that is being stimulated by the electrical discharge.

Seizures can be generalized or partial. Generalized means that all brain cells are involved. One type of generalized seizure consists of a convulsion with a complete loss of consciousness. Another type looks like a brief period of fixed staring.

Seizures are partial when those brain cells not working properly are limited to one part of the brain. Such partial seizures may cause periods of "automatic behaviour" and altered consciousness. This is typified by purposeful-looking behaviour such as buttoning or unbuttoning a shirt. Such behaviour, however, is unconscious, may be repetitive, and is usually not recalled.

Sometimes seizures are related to a temporary condition, such as exposure to drugs, withdrawal from certain drugs, or abnormal levels of sodium or glucose in the blood. In such cases, repeated seizures may not recur once the underlying problem is corrected. In other cases, injury to the brain causes brain tissue to be abnormally excitable. In some people, an inherited abnormality affects nerve cells in the brain, which leads to seizures. In some cases, no cause at all can be identified.


  • Blackouts or periods of confused memory
  • Episodes of staring or unexplained periods of unresponsiveness
  • Involuntary movement of arms and legs
  • Fainting spells with incontinence or followed by excessive fatigue
  • Odd sounds, distorted perceptions, episodic feelings of fear that cannot be explained

The severity of symptoms can vary greatly from simple staring spells to loss of consciousness and violent convulsions. Characteristics of petit mal seizures:

  • Minimal or no movements (except "eye blinking ")
  • Brief sudden loss of awareness or conscious activity

Characteristics of grand mal seizures:

  • Whole body, violent muscle contractions
  • Rigid and stiff
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Breathing stops temporarily, then "sighing"
  • Tongue or cheek biting

Characteristics of partial seizures:

  • Muscle contractions of a specific body part
  • Abnormal sensations
  • Nausea, sweating, skin flushing, and dilated pupils

Characteristics of partial complex seizures:

  • Automatism (automatic performance of complex behaviours without conscious awareness)
  • Abnormal sensations
  • Nausea, sweating, skin flushing and dilated pupils
  • Recalled or inappropriate emotions
  • Changes in personality


  • Medication.


  • Prolonged seizures or numerous seizures without complete recovery between them
  • Injury from falls, bumps, or self-inflected bites
  • Difficulty with learning
  • Many anti-epileptic medications cause birth defects: women wishing to become pregnant should alert their doctor in advance in order to adjust medications

Seizures may interfere with a child's ability to learn. If the student has the type of seizure characterized by a brief period of fixed staring, he or she may be missing parts of what the teacher is saying. It is important that the teacher observe.

Depending on the type of seizure or how often they occur, some children may need additional assistance to help them keep up with classmates. Assistance can include adaptations in classroom instruction and first aid instruction on seizure management.

Children and youth with epilepsy must also deal with psychological and social aspects of the condition. These include public misconceptions and fear of seizures, uncertain occurrence, loss of self-control during the seizure episode, and compliance with medications.

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.