Staring spells in children with autism spectrum disorder: A clinical dilemma

Autism. 2023 Jul;27(5):1407-1416. doi: 10.1177/13623613221137240. Epub 2022 Nov 23.


It is a common occurrence for children with autism spectrum disorder to be diagnosed with staring spells. Staring spells are defined as periods of time when children "space out" and are subcategorized as either "absence seizures" (brain activity resembling a seizure but with no physical seizure symptoms) or "non-epileptic spells" (inattentiveness or daydreaming). Due to the subtle characteristics of staring spells, they are usually diagnosed via long-term video electroencephalogram. The child is monitored for 3-5 days with an electroencephalogram which records brain waves. An electroencephalogram may be difficult to perform in children with autism spectrum disorder due to behavior, cognitive, or sensory concerns. Therefore, we wanted to investigate other clinical characteristics that may help us differentiate between epileptic seizures versus non-epileptic spells in children with autism spectrum disorder presenting with staring spells. We reviewed 140 charts retrospectively from the years of 2010-2021. We abstracted demographic and clinical information from the electronic medical record system and reviewed electroencephalogram videos to group the 140 children into epileptic seizure diagnosis group versus non-epileptic spell group. Of the 140 children in this study, 22 were diagnosed with epileptic seizures and the remaining were diagnosed with non-epileptic spells. We found that the two groups differed in certain clinical characteristics such as how long the staring spells lasted, how many staring spells the child had in 1 week, and whether they responded to verbal commands. We believe that clinical features may be helpful in differentiating epileptic seizures from non-epileptic spells in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; epileptic seizures; staring spells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / complications
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / diagnosis
  • Child
  • Electroencephalography
  • Epilepsy* / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Seizures / diagnosis