Understanding Epilepsy & Its Impact on College Success
Understanding epilepsy and how it behaves is important to students, families, professors, administrators, and other members of a college campus community. The following section gives an overview of this disorder, how it is diagnosed, and the spectrum by which it affects individuals.
What is epilepsy?
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, this chronic neurological disorder produces unpredictable seizures across a spectrum that vary from person-to-person but can cause additional health problems if left untreated.
What are the major types of seizures?
In 2017, the International League Against Epilepsy outlined three different types of seizures, including:
- Focal onset seizures. This classification of seizures exist in only one part of the brain and may sometimes be called partial seizures. Simple focal seizures may result in sensation changes, such as picking up an inexplicable taste or smell or subtly twitching. Complex focal seizures create feelings of confusion or daze, and the person experiencing them may not be able to communicate for a few minutes. Secondary generalized seizures start in a single part of the brain but then move to both sides, resulting in a combination of focal and generalized seizures.
- General onset seizures. These types of seizures affect the whole or parts of both sides of the brain simultaneously. Within this categorization exist absence seizures or petit mal and tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures. The former may result in rapid blinking or a few moments of looking out into space with no real focus. The latter can result in lost consciousness, falling, crying out, or experiencing jerks and spasms in muscles.
- Unknown onset seizures. This category exists for seizures not yet classified. Researchers may not have identified where they start, or they could be taking place when a person is alone and no one can verify what happened to them or how it affected their cognition or physical behavior.
How common is epilepsy among college students?
Data specific to college students does not exist, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 5.1 million Americans have a history of epilepsy and an additional 3.4 million have active epilepsy. The Epilepsy Foundation notes that it is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the country and affects individuals across the lifespan.
What causes epilepsy
Epilepsy can be caused by numerous factors. Common causes include brain tumors, head trauma, developmental issues in utero, and strokes. They can also be caused by drinking too much alcohol, getting too little sleep, taking stimulant drugs, or having low blood sugar.
If I have a seizure, does that mean I have epilepsy?
No. The Epilepsy Foundation states that individuals are diagnosed with epilepsy after experiencing two seizures that cannot be explained by any other “known and reversible medical condition.”
Epilepsy and Common Challenges in College
Epilepsy can interfere with learning in college. While it’s important to note that no two individuals are the same, it may be helpful to be aware of the realities for these students and how epilepsy can impact college success.
Managing the transition
“The main challenge during the transition to college is going from the protected environment of the home to one where the teen needs to foster greater independence and responsibility to manage their condition,” notes epilepsy specialist Dr. William Gaillard.
Approximately 40 percent of kids with epilepsy also receive ADHD diagnoses, adding to their distraction in the classroom.
“If someone has a seizure, expecting them to be able to ‘jump back on the horse’ may be unreasonable,” notes UNG disability specialist Thomas McCoy. “Some people may not be able to concentrate for a length of time.”
According to Spark Epilepsy, children who begin having seizures when their brains are still developing may face developmental interruptions and/or delays.
Following safe practices
“While all students with epilepsy should be encouraged to live a free and independent life that involves doing the things any college student should do, they must also adhere to basic safety rules such as not swimming alone, bicycling without a helmet, or other activities that could cause issues,” says Dr. Gaillard.
4 Things for Students with Epilepsy to Consider When Choosing a School
According to Dr. William Gaillard, “teens should pick a college based on their own interests and needs, and epilepsy should not play a role in their decision.” That being said, some students must consider some factors to ensure they stay safe and healthy while in school. A few things to think about include:
Academic Accommodations for College Students with Epilepsy
Accommodations at college can help students with epilepsy feel supported and help them keep from worrying about how a missed class or exam may affect their GPAs. Common accommodations include:
“If a student is out due to their barrier, this accommodation allows the student to not have their absence counted against them as it would in other circumstances,” notes McCoy. “This will allow them to make up any missed examinations, projects, or assignments.”
Students sometimes can’t just bounce back from a seizure—they need time. Allowing these students to reschedule exams helps them reset and show their full potential and mastery of the class.
“Notetakers can help with any missed classes,” says McCoy. By having someone who writes down the main points of the class—or a professor who sends prepared notes—students can feel involved even if they can’t be present.
“This allows students to take classes during times that their medications are most effective,” notes McCoy. “Some students have seizures at night, so evening classes would not be appropriate. Others have them when they get tired, so late morning or early afternoon classes would be better.”
Plans of Action
“These can help students with frequent seizures by creating a protocol that can be shared with professors and emergency personnel to dictate the student’s choices during an emergency situation,” says McCoy. “These have helped students a number of times, especially if they aren’t cognizant enough to communicate effectively.”
Set up a meeting. Even before starting school, students can set up a meeting with disability services to register their disabilities.
Provide documentation. In order to receive accommodations or special services, students must provide current documentation from a medical professional. High school IEPs usually do not count. The university should provide details on acceptable forms of documentation.
Talk over accommodations. Discuss with the disability services administrator any previous accommodations you’ve had in the past, how effective they were, and what might be suitable at this level. Ask for a letter from the staff member that you can provide to professors.
Speak with professors. Show the letter from disability services to your professor and discuss within your level of comfort specific accommodations you might need in their class.
Evaluate effectiveness. Even if specific accommodations worked for you in high school, that doesn’t mean they will at the college level. Monitor their effectiveness and, if need be, speak with disability services to edit your list.
Disclosing Your Disability: Who to Tell & What to Tell Them
Sharing your epilepsy diagnosis can feel awkward, according to Dr. William Gaillard, because of the stigma surrounding this neurological disorder, but that shouldn’t stop you from telling those who need to know. “It’s important that certain people know so they can help if needed,” says Dr. Gaillard. “Studies show that people with a roommate are less likely to die with epilepsy—your resident assistant and student health system should also be aware.”
Thomas McCoy, Director of Student Disability Services at UNG, echoes these sentiments. “Students tend to weigh carefully who they want to tell, as stigma or concerns about what other people think or how they may react can influence these decisions,” he notes. “The impact of epilepsy in frequency and intensity can play a factor in their decision, making it a really personal choice. Individuals around the student should respect their choices and maintain their confidentiality when they decide to disclose.”
Deciding to disclose that you have epilepsy is very personal, so consider these questions even before arriving at college. As McCoy notes, the severity in which you experience seizures can greatly affect your decision-making process. For some students, there may be no option but to tell disability services, professors, roommates, and others around campus. For those with less severe seizures, they may not need to share this information with as many individuals. Speak with your doctor, as she/he may be able to provide insight.
15 Scholarships for College Students with Epilepsy
Students with epilepsy and their families know that managing this condition can cost a lot of money. When combining those costs with college tuition and fees, it can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, many scholarships exist to help offset costs for this population.
- Berner Scholarship/Interest Free Loan
- Amount: $10,000
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Foundation Chicago
- Application Deadline: Late March
$5,000 of this award exists as a grant, while the remaining $5,000 exists as an interest-free loan that must be paid back within seven years of graduating.See Scholarship
- Community Foundation of Central Illinois Epilepsy Scholarship Fund
- Amount: $500
- Sponsoring Organization: Community Foundation of Central Illinois
- Application Deadline: Early March
Students with epilepsy residing in Illinois can apply for this award if they plan to attend a community or four-year college, have an epilepsy diagnosis, and can write an essay.See Scholarship
- Education Enrichment Fund Scholarship
- Amount: Up to $5,000
- Sponsoring Organization: Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy
- Application Deadline: Varies
Applicants to this scholarship must have received a diagnosis of epilepsy or seizure disorder to qualify. They must provide evidence of leadership skills, extracurriculars, and volunteerism, and write a 500-word essay.See Scholarship
- Elam Baer & Janis Clay Educational Scholarship
- Amount: $1,000
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Foundation Minnesota
- Application Deadline: Late May
This award exists for North Dakota and Minnesota residents who have received an epilepsy diagnosis and can show proof of acceptance at a higher education institution. Applicants must also provide two letters of recommendation.See Scholarship
- Epilepsy Scholarship Program
- Amount: Up to $1,500
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Association of Western and Central Pennsylvania
- Application Deadline: Mid-March
This scholarship exists for students with an epilepsy or seizure disorder who recently graduated high school, live in Pennsylvania, and plan to enroll full-time in a postsecondary program.See Scholarship
- FACES Scholarship
- Amount: Up to $5,000
- Sponsoring Organization: Finding a Cure for Epilepsy and Seizures (FACES)
- Application Deadline: Late May
FACES offers this scholarship to college students at all levels who live with epilepsy and can provide evidence of financial need. Applicants must provide proof of diagnosis and a personal statement, but GPA is not taken into consideration.See Scholarship
- Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health & Disability
- Amount: $1,000
- Sponsoring Organization: American Association on Health and Disability
- Application Deadline: Mid-November
Individuals with disabilities recognized by IDEA can apply for this scholarship if they are enrolled on a full-time basis, are in at least their second year of schooling, and can provide a personal statement, personal history, and statement of goals.See Scholarship
- Jason B. Fleishman College Scholarship
- Amount: Varies
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Foundation Vermont
- Application Deadline: October
This award was created in 2018 and exists for future students with epilepsy who live in Vermont or have enrolled in a Vermont college or university.See Scholarship
- Matthew Siravo Memorial Scholarship
- Amount: $2,500
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Foundation New England
- Application Deadline: Early March
This award exists for individuals living with epilepsy in New England who want to gain a postsecondary education.See Scholarship
- Microsoft disAbility Scholarship
- Amount: Up to $20,000
- Sponsoring Organization: Microsoft
- Application Deadline: Early March
This scholarship is for students with a disability who attend a two- or four-year college and plan to focus their studies on a STEM topic. Applicants must maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher and demonstrate leadership potential.See Scholarship
- Sara Elizabeth Stubblefield Memorial Scholarship
- Amount: $2,000
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Foundation Greater Chicago
- Application Deadline: Late April
Applicants to this award must live in Illinois, be under a doctor’s care for epilepsy, and plan to attend college or a vocational school as a high school senior.See Scholarship
- Seize Your Education Scholarship
- Amount: $1,200
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Foundation Heart of Wisconsin
- Application Deadline: Early May
Applicants must have an epilepsy diagnosis, live in Wisconsin, and be either a high school senior, undergraduate, or graduate student. They must also hold a GPA of 3.0 or higher and produce three letters of recommendation.See Scholarship
- Shannon O’Daniel Memorial Scholarship
- Amount: $1,000
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Foundation Kentuckiana
- Application Deadline: Early June
High school seniors living in Kentucky or Indiana can apply for this one-time award if they receive physician’s care for epilepsy and have been accepted to a college or university.See Scholarship
- Taylor Huth Memorial Scholarship
- Amount: $1,500
- Sponsoring Organization: Epilepsy Alliance Ohio
- Application Deadline: Late February
This one-time scholarship exists for individuals pursuing undergraduate degrees who have been diagnosed with epilepsy and can demonstrate participation in extracurriculars. Applicants must provide an essay on a given topic, transcripts, and two letters of recommendation.See Scholarship
- UCB Family Epilepsy Scholarship Program
- Amount: Up to $10,000
- Sponsoring Organization: UCB
- Application Deadline: Mid-February
UCB offers up to 30 scholarships annually for students with epilepsy who need financial assistance to attend college. Awards are given based on students’ desiring community service, building epilepsy awareness, and handling epilepsy positively.See Scholarship
In addition to the information and guidance provided throughout this page, many organizations work to help those with epilepsy and their families flourish while in college and beyond.
- Attending College with Epilepsy. The Epilepsy Foundation shares advice for students who want to make the most of their time at school while ensuring they stay healthy and happy.
- Epilepsy Community Forums. Students can find support, guidance, and inspiration from these online forums where individuals with epilepsy share about their experiences.
- National Organizations Dedicated to Addressing Epilepsy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a list of organizations and foundations working to support those with epilepsy and expand research.
- Preparing for College with Epilepsy. EpilepsyU offers lessons from students who already graduated and successfully navigated epilepsy while at school.
- Preparing Young Adults with Epilepsy for College. Texas Children’s Hospital shares advice for both parents and teens in this comprehensive article.
- Teaching Students Who Have Epilepsy. Indiana University of Pennsylvania provides education and resources to professors working with students who have epilepsy.
- What Student Life Is Like for Me as Someone With Epilepsy. Student Shannon Leigh shares her experiences for students who want to get a day-in-the-life view of attending college with epilepsy.