Getting Disability Benefits for a Child With Epilepsy

Children with frequent seizures and low income can qualify for disability benefits from SSI.

By , J.D., University of Baltimore School of Law

Almost 500,000 children in the United States have epilepsy. Some children with epilepsy might be able to get federal disability benefits in the form of Supplemental Security Income (SSI). But to be eligible, the child must:

  • meet the Social Security definition of disabled, and
  • meet the SSI income and asset limits (based on the child's parents' financial situation).

If you make too much money or have too many other resources, your child won't qualify for SSI benefits even if the Social Security Administration (SSA) decides your child's epilepsy is disabling. (More on this below.)

Most childhood epilepsy can be controlled with medication. But that isn't always the case.

Is Childhood Epilepsy a Disability?

Epilepsy (or "seizure disorder") is a neurological disorder characterized by seizures—changes in movement, behavior, feeling, or awareness lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes. But epilepsy isn't one condition—it's a variety of conditions with different symptoms and patterns. And it can be severe enough to be disabling.

Not everyone who has a seizure has epilepsy. For an epilepsy diagnosis, your child's seizures must be:

  • recurrent (at least two occurring more than 24 hours apart), and
  • accompanied by abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

Non-epileptic seizures have many causes, like stress or psychological issues (pseudoseizures) or high fever (febrile seizures). Low or high blood sugar levels can also cause a non-epileptic seizure.

What Causes Debilitating Epilepsy?

It's not always possible to know what causes a child to develop epilepsy. But some of the known causes include the following:

  • birth trauma or head injuries
  • congenital brain development problems
  • brain tumors
  • heredity, or
  • medications.

Whether epilepsy results in disabling limitations for a child depends on the severity and type. Sometimes, even minor seizures can damage the brain. And children with epilepsy might experience issues like:

  • personality and mood changes
  • difficulty in school, and
  • injuries during a seizure.

Children living with a condition like epilepsy can also develop emotional problems, like low self-esteem or depression. And some seizure medications have side effects that cause issues such as:

  • hyperactivity
  • exhaustion, or
  • forgetfulness.

Frequent seizures can disrupt a child's normal activities and family life.

Types of Epileptic Seizures

There are two main types of epilepsy, categorized based on the kind of seizures your child has:

  • generalized seizures (starting on both sides of the brain), and
  • focal seizures (starting in a particular area of one side of the brain)

Generalized motor seizures (formerly called "grand mal" seizures) include muscle spasms. Tonic-clonic seizures are one type that causes muscles to stiffen and jerk, and the person loses consciousness. Atonic seizures are another type that causes muscles to suddenly go limp.

Generalized non-motor seizures (once called "petit mal" seizures) sometimes include repetitive motions like blinking or lip smacking and usually cause someone to stare off into space.

Focal aware seizures (once called "simple partial seizures") don't cause someone to lose consciousness or awareness. They can, but don't always involve movements like twitching or even walking around. They can change how someone feels or thinks and include intense emotions or physical sensations like seeing flashes of light or smelling something strange.

Focal impaired awareness seizures (also called "dyscognitive seizures" when they last several minutes or "absence seizures" when they last only a few seconds) can cause someone to lose consciousness but look like they're still awake. They can include repetitive motions, like gagging or lip-smacking. The person having the seizure is generally unaware of what's happening or doesn't remember what happened.

Some children with epilepsy experience focal seizures that later become generalized. And sometimes, the type of seizures someone has is unknown because of unclear test results or because no one has witnessed what happens during the seizures.

How Does a Child With Epilepsy Qualify for SSI?

To qualify for SSI, a child must meet two requirements:

  • the child (and the child's family) must meet Social Security's financial requirements, and
  • the child must have a medically determinable condition that meets Social Security's definition of disabled.

(The qualifications for disability benefits for adults with epilepsy are somewhat different. Learn more about getting Social Security disability for adults with epilepsy.)

Meeting the Financial Requirements for SSI

SSI is a needs-based disability program only available to children who meet the financial requirements. Social Security bases children's eligibility on their parents' income and resources because parents are financially responsible for their children.

Social Security will look at the parents' (and stepparents') income and resources to determine financial eligibility. The SSA uses a formula to determine how much of the parental income is available to the child by subtracting:

  • excluded earned and unearned income
  • spending allocations for all non-disabled children, and
  • spending allocations for the parents.

The remaining portion, which is "deemed" to be available to the disabled child, must be less than the federal SSI benefit amount ($943 in 2024).

Children from families with too many resources (think cash in the bank or valuables that can be sold to raise cash) also aren't eligible for SSI—even if the parents' income falls below the limit. Some valuables don't count toward the limit, like:

  • the parents' home
  • one car
  • clothing and personal effects, and
  • furniture and other household goods.

The resource limit depends on how many parents live in the home with the child. For a single parent, it's $2,000. For a two-parent household, it's $3,000.

Learn more about how parental income and assets affect a child's SSI eligibility.

Meeting the Definition of Disabled

Social Security has identified some medical conditions that can be severe enough to automatically qualify for disability benefits. The SSA's "listing of impairments" explains the criteria a child must meet to qualify as disabled for that condition.

Epilepsy is one of the listed impairments that might entitle your child to receive SSI disability benefits (listing 111.02). To meet the listing, you'll need to show that, despite following prescribed treatment, your child suffers from:

  • generalized tonic-clonic seizures that occur at least once a month for three consecutive months, or
  • dyscognitive or absence seizures that occur at least once a week for three consecutive months.

Your child's neurologist can help you determine whether your child meets the listing requirements. Learn more about getting a doctor's help proving a disability claim.

What If My Child's Epilepsy Doesn't Meet a Listing?

Children whose epilepsy doesn't technically meet one of the listings but still interferes with their ability to function can sometimes qualify for disability benefits by "functionally equalling the listings." To determine if your child qualifies as disabled in this way, Social Security will assess your child's abilities in six areas of functioning (called domains):

  • learning and using information
  • completing tasks
  • interacting and relating with others
  • moving about and manipulating objects
  • caring for personal needs, and
  • general health and physical well-being.

Your child will qualify as disabled if Social Security finds that your child's epilepsy causes either:

  • a "marked" (severe) limitation in at least two areas of functioning, or
  • an "extreme" limitation in at least one area of functioning.

Learn more about how a child can functionally equal the listings.

How to Apply for SSI for a Child With Epilepsy

You can't complete your child's SSI application yourself. Instead, you'll need to let Social Security know that you want to apply for SSI disability benefits for a child. The SSA will then set an appointment for you to apply (with the help of a Social Security representative). You can get things started by:

If you can, you should complete the Child Disability Report (Form SSA-3820) before your scheduled interview. You'll use this form to share your child's medical history (including health care providers and treatments). You'll also explain your child's medical condition and how epilepsy affects your child's ability to function.

(Learn more about applying for SSI for a disabled child.)

Getting Help From an Attorney

Trying to prove your child's condition fits into Social Security's definition of disability can be difficult and time-consuming—especially for a parent caring for a disabled child. It might be helpful to discuss your child's case with a disability attorney experienced in representing children's SSI claims.

Learn how to arrange a consultation with a disability attorney for your child's SSI claim.

Updated November 27, 2023

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