What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy–also known as CP–is a condition caused by injury to the parts of the brain that control our ability to use our muscles and bodies. Cerebral means having to do with the brain. Palsy means weakness or problems with using the muscles. Often the injury happens before birth, sometimes during delivery, or, like Jen, soon after being born. CP can be mild, moderate, or severe. Mild CP may mean a child is clumsy. Moderate CP may mean the child walks with a limp. He or she may need a special leg brace or a cane. More severe CP can affect all parts of a child’s physical abilities. A child with moderate or severe CP may have to use a wheelchair and other special equipment. Sometimes children with CP can also have learning problems, problems with hearing or seeing (called sensory problems), or mental retardation. Usually, the greater the injury to the brain, the more severe the CP. However, CP doesn’t get worse over time, and most children with CP have a normal life span.
How Common is CP?
About 500,000 people in America have some form of CP. Each year 8,000 infants and nearly 1,500 preschool-age children are diagnosed with CP.
What Are the Signs of CP?
There are three main types of CP:
- Spastic CP is where there is too much muscle tone or tightness. Movements are stiff, especially in the legs, arms, and/or back. Children with this form of CP move their legs awkwardly, turning in or scissoring their legs as they try to walk. This is the most common form of CP.
- Athetoid CP (also called dyskinetic CP) can affect movements of the entire body. Typically, this form of CP involves slow, uncontrolled body movements and low muscle tone that makes it hard for the person to sit straight and walk.
- Mixed CP is a combination of the symptoms listed above. A child with mixed CP has both high and low tone muscle. Some muscles are too tight, and others are too loose, creating a mix of stiffness and involuntary movements.
Other terms used to describe the different areas of the body that can be affected by CP include:
- Diplegia–This means only the legs are affected.
- Hemiplegia–This means one half of the body (such as the right arm and leg) is affected.
- Quadriplegia–This means both arms and legs are affected, sometimes including the facial muscles and torso.
What About Treatment?
With early and ongoing treatment the effects of CP can be reduced. Many children learn how to get their bodies to work for them in other ways. For example, one infant whose CP keeps him from crawling may be able to get around by rolling from place to place.
Children younger than three years old can benefit greatly from early intervention services. Early intervention is a system of services to support infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. For older children, special education and related services are available through the public school to help each child achieve and learn.
Typically, children with CP may need different kinds of therapy, including:
- Physical therapy (PT), which helps the child develop stronger muscles such as those in the legs and trunk. Through PT, the child works on skills such as walking, sitting, and keeping his or her balance.
- Occupational therapy (OT), which helps the child develop fine motor skills such as dressing, feeding, writing, and other daily living tasks.
- Speech-language pathology (S/L), which helps the child develop his or her communication skills. The child may work in particular on speaking, which may be difficult due to problems with muscle tone of the tongue and throat.
The child may also find a variety of special equipment helpful. For example, braces (also called AFOs) may be used to hold the foot in place when the child stands or walks. Custom splints can provide support to help a child use his or her hands. A variety of therapy equipment and adapted toys are available to help children play and have fun while they are working their bodies. Activities such as swimming or horseback riding can help strengthen weaker muscles and relax the tighter ones.
New medical treatments are being developed all the time. Sometimes surgery, Botox injections, or other medications can help lessen the effects of CP, but there is no cure for the condition.
What About School?
A child with CP can face many challenges in school and is likely to need individualized help. Fortunately, states are responsible for meeting the educational needs of children with disabilities.
For children up to age three, services are provided through an early intervention system. Staff work with the child’s family to develop what is known as an Individualized Family Services Plan, or IFSP. The IFSP will describe the child’s unique needs as well as the services the child will receive to address those needs. The IFSP will also emphasize the unique needs of the family, so that parents and other family members will know how to help their young child with CP. Early intervention services may be provided on a sliding-fee basis, meaning that the costs to the family will depend upon their income.
For school-aged children, including preschoolers, special education and related services will be provided through the school system. School staff will work with the child’s parents to develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP is similar to an IFSP in that it describes the child’s unique needs and the services that have been designed to meet those needs. Special education and related services, which can include PT, OT, and speech-language pathology, are provided at no cost to parents.
In addition to therapy services and special equipment, children with CP may need what is known as assistive technology. Examples of assistive technology include:
- Communication devices, which can range from the simple to the sophisticated. Communication boards, for example, have pictures, symbols, letters, or words attached. The child communicates by pointing to or gazing at the pictures or symbols. Augmentative communication devices are more sophisticated and include voice synthesizers that enable the child to “talk” with others.
- Computer technology, which can range from electronic toys with special switches to sophisticated computer programs operated by simple switch pads or keyboard adaptations.
The ability of the brain to find new ways of working after an injury is remarkable. Even so, it can be difficult for parents to imagine what their child’s future will be like. Good therapy and handling can help, but the most important “treatment” the child can receive is love and encouragement, with lots of typical childhood experiences, family, and friends. With the right mix of support, equipment, extra time, and accommodations, all children with CP can be successful learners and full participants in life.
Geralis, E. (1998). Children with cerebral palsy: A parents’ guide (2nd ed.). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. (Telephone: 800.843.7323. Web: http://www.woodbinehouse.com/ )
Kelker, K.A., & Holt, R. (2000). Family guide to assistive technology. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books. (Telephone: 800.666.2665. Web: http://www.brooklinebooks.com/ )
Miller, F., & Bachrach, S.J. (1998). Cerebral palsy: A complete guide for caregiving. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Telephone: 800.537.5487. Web: http://www.press.jhu.edu/ )