Cerebral palsy is one of the disorders included under the broad umbrella of developmental disabilities. However, CP is a broad term.
CP actually is a group of disorders that affect the brain and nervous system and cause physical and mental impairments. CP can strike before birth or within the first three years of life, while a childs brain is developing. Often, CP is the result of an injury or infection (either in the womb or after birth) or low oxygen supply. Infants who are born at very low birth weights have an increased risk of CP, as are infants who experience trauma during birth.
Because CP is an entire group of disorders, it can manifest in a variety of different ways. Some people have their whole body affected, while others have problems on one side of their bodies. Many people with CP have cognitive impairments. Many have average or higher intelligence. (Remember Geri on the 1980s sitcom The Facts of Life?)
The majority of people with CP (more than 80 percent) have a type of CP called spastic CP, which causes some or all muscles to be overly tight and constricted. This can cause the person with CP to have an unsteady gait or limited use of his or her legs. In cases of spastic quadriplegic CP, the person is affected in all four limbs and may have limited use of both arms and legs.
People with CP also often experience gastrointestinal distress, tremors, seizures, spasms and poor muscle tone. Ambulatory people often have a scissor walk where the knees cross as they walk or a toe walk where one or both heels dont touch the ground during their stride. Speech impairments are common in people with CP because of poor respiratory control and problems controlling facial muscles.
There is no cure for CP, but there is a lot of support to live with its effects. Early intervention supports, such as those offered by San Juan Kids, have the best opportunity to improve a childs functioning significantly through physical, occupational and speech therapies. Medications can help control seizures or reduce muscle spasms. Assistive technology and adaptive equipment open many doors, giving nonambulatory people more freedom to move and people with speech limitations more ways to communicate.
As people with CP are given more assistance during early childhood and access to technology and education, they show the world that their potential is much greater than once believed. Only about 1 in 3 people with CP have a significant cognitive impairment.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people with CP live in our communities. Some of these people live independent lives. Others have technology and caregivers to help make sure all their basic needs are met, including toileting, feeding, dressing and bathing. All have the capacity to make contributions to our community and live, work and recreate with their nondisabled peers.
If you suspect your child has cerebral palsy or other developmental delays, call San Juan Kids at Community Connections, 385-3498, for a free developmental screening.
Tara Kiene is the director of case management with Community Connections Inc.