Let's Talk About Cerebral Palsy
Did you know in Australia, one in 700 infants are born with Cerebral Palsy each year? Did you know it is also the most common childhood physical disability in Australia? You've probably heard about this condition but might not know what it entails and how it affects kids as they grow.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a permanent, non-progressive disorder caused by damage to the parts of the brain that control muscle movements. It can be a result of the child’s brain not developing properly during pregnancy, a child being born prematurely, the mother's exposure to illness during pregnancy, a baby not getting enough oxygen during birth, injury during birth or the early years of life. There are three types of CP -
Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Kids with spastic cerebral palsy experience stiff, tight muscles as the brain struggle to process messages from the muscles to the brain. This is the most common type of cerebral palsy.
Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy
This type of cerebral palsy causes involuntary twisting and repetitive movements anywhere in the body, which make it hard for kids to sit, stand and move. These movements can worsen when the child is tired, anxious, tired or in pain. This is the second most common type of cerebral palsy.
Ataxic Cerebral Palsy
This is the least common form of cerebral palsy, and it causes kids to experience shaky and unsteady movements or tremors. This can affect balance and movement, often causing the child to walk or stand with their feet wider apart.
What are some common symptoms of Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral Palsy affects a child's body movement, coordination, muscle tone, reflexes, posture and balance. Kids who have CP may also experience epilepsy, visual, learning, hearing, speech or intellectual impairments. The symptoms differ significantly between cases and while a child with severe CP might need extensive, lifelong care, a mild case may only exhibit slightly awkward movements with no special assistance required.
Symptoms can include -
- Shaking and/or involuntary movements
- Weakness and/or lack of coordination in their voluntary movements
- Stiff or tight muscles and exaggerated reflexes
- Slow or delayed development in feeding, communication and movement
- Acute and chronic pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Visual and hearing impairments
- Learning difficulties
While these symptoms can seem intimidating for parents faced with a diagnosis, children with CP also have strong skills in managing challenges, participating in social interaction and forming strong relationships. They also show an extra desire to learn, increased appreciation for aspects of their life and can build a dedicated work ethic.
How can I support my child with Cerebral Palsy?
Early intervention and a correct diagnosis are the best paths for supporting your child with CP and ensuring their development stays on track. This can include seeing a paediatrician and having them test your child’s voluntary movements, checking whether they exhibit floppy, stiff and/or tight muscles and how your child moves and stands.
It can also include seeing an occupational therapist who can extend their skills set in sitting, walking, playing, dressing and toileting. Your OT may suggest using specialised equipment such as supportive seating or compressive clothing to assist in this process. A speech therapist will focus on helping your child develop their communication skills. They may suggest the use of alternative communication systems, such as signing, communication boards and speech generating devices.
You can also seek educational support such as a teacher’s aide, who help your child thrive in the classroom or assistance from a physiotherapist who will focus on helping your child improve their movement.
It's important to work in a partnership with these professionals. Don't be afraid to seek their opinion on developmental delays you notice or ask them about resources that can help you develop insight into your child's experience with CP.
Managing Cerebral Palsy as a Family
It’s important to take moments for yourself to monitor and care for your own mental health and wellbeing. You can do this by connecting with other parents for support, either in online groups (check out the Cerebral Palsy Parents Information Group or the Cerebral Palsy Support Group on Facebook) or in your local community.
If you have other children, you can support them by setting aside one on one time. This will give them the opportunity to see they’re just as important and provide a safe space where they can express how they’re feeling and communicate any areas of life they need support in.