Having epilepsy does not mean that learning difficulties are an automatic consequence, but many people report difficulties with memory, concentration and fatigue, all which impact learning. The fact that epilepsy can be associated with wide-ranging learning problems makes it critical that children and adults with epilepsy have the appropriate supports in order to develop to their full potential. To ensure each person with epilepsy has this opportunity, teachers need to understand:
- The diverse symptoms of epilepsy.
- The specific nature of each persons seizures and treatment.
- How epilepsy may affect a person cognitively (learning ability), emotionally and socially.
Broadly, learning and cognitive difficulties may be directly related to:
- the type of epilepsy and seizures and where they occur in the brain
- for instance, some seizures originate specifically in the memory region of the brain
- how often the seizures occur and when they occur
- seizures in sleep will disrupt sleep patterns causing daytime drowsiness,
- seizures first thing in the morning will impact on learning during the day
- the time absent from class because of seizures, learning time missed
- the time it takes to recover from seizures, which is variable for each person
- unwanted medication effects
- presence of other brain conditions or damage
Some of the difficulties students with epilepsy may experience are problems with:
- Short and long term memory
- Attention and concentration
- Visual and/or verbal learning – reading, spelling, rote learning, speech and language
- Perceptual abilities, numeracy, problem-solving and memory recall
- Motor ability – handwriting may be poor and performance slower
- Psychosocial problems – low self-esteem, frustration, anxiety, depression and poor motivation
- Maintaining consistency in learning
- Behaviours – commonly attention-seeking or withdrawing
- Changes in mood, depression and anxiety
Seizures and medications
Seizures and medication can affect:
- Cognitive functioning
- Motor skills
- Moods and behaviour
- Sleep patterns
If learning difficulties are inconsistent they may be directly associated with seizures or with taking medication. It is good to keep a record of when they happen or are worse. So take note of:
- If learning difficulties or memory/concentration problems happen at a particular time of day, corresponding to the peak levels of medication in the blood or correlating with a seizure.
- When the learning difficulties began. Was it when seizures started or when the medication was started?
- If difficulties began when there is a change in type of medication or increase in dose of medication.
Sometimes if it is related to medication, then this may improve after the initial few weeks – until the medication is at ideal levels for seizure control. It is well known that when commencing an antiepileptic medication that the initial side effects are worse, and improve or disappear over time.
Anxiety and depression
The cognitive symptoms of anxiety and depression can be subtle and underestimated, yet they are quite common. Problem-solving and higher thinking, are greatly diminished when someone is suffering from anxiety and/or depression. These symptoms can interfere with all areas of a person’s life, including work, school and their relationships.
If you feel you have or your child has anxiety or depression, it is best to see a professional and get help.
Ways to recognise and help with learning difficulties
Have an assessment of your abilities to find out your baseline capacity. This is mostly done by a neuropsychologist and called neuropsychological assessment or psychometric testing.
If abnormalities or deficiencies are found, then you have the knowledge of what areas of difficulty need addressing and the education facility should accommodate or assist.
In schools this can then lead to the development of an Individual Education Plan to support, enhance and assist with learning for that student based on strengths and weaknesses.
Any social, emotional, bullying problems or difficulties at home should also be acknowledged and tackled as these can significantly affect learning as well.
For more information:
EAA factsheet Seizure Smart – Epilepsy and Education (for teachers). This also has teaching strategies that may help.
Epilepsy: Strategies for Teachers