Cerebral palsy is a severe disability that can affect anyone, even infants who’ve had a clean bill of health during a mother’s pregnancy. It is a brain-related birth injury that happens right before or right after birth (known as the perinatal period). It’s important to understand cerebral palsy symptoms as soon as possible, as the earlier the disorder is diagnosed, the better chances you’ll have in decreasing the severity of disabilities associated with the disorder.
Cerebral palsy is a brain injury that comes from paralysis of the brain. Some areas of the brain are dormant and cause an abnormal reaction in the muscles from the resulting messages that the brain sends out. As a result, there are a myriad of muscle-related symptoms associated with the disorder. It’s important to remember, however, that not all children will exhibit the same symptoms and the severity of each symptom will depend upon each individual child.
Common muscle-related symptoms include:
- Lack of muscle coordination
- Shaky, spastic movements
- Muscles may become extremely stiff or extremely loose
- Difficulty in controlling certain body movements
- Inability to grasp small objects
- Using the arms to pull themselves around while the legs drag behind (most prominent after 6 months of age and into the toddler years)
- Slow, writhing movements
- Excessive drooling due to the inability to control facial muscles
- Favoring one side of the body over the other side
Cerebral palsy hardly ever involves only intellectual disabilities as its greatest symptoms involve muscle-related disabilities. However, if your child exhibits muscle-related disabilities, there is a chance that they may exhibit intellectual disabilities as well. Typical types of intellectual disabilities associated with cerebral palsy include:
Missed Cognitive Milestones
Perhaps one of the most major indications of cerebral palsy (as long as other symptoms are present) is missed developmental milestones. For example, if a child hasn’t start talking by two years of age or doesn’t understand basic grammar such as “she” or “he” by the age of five, this may be an indication of cerebral palsy. Keep in mind, though, that children hit developmental milestones at different ages, so a delay in milestones alone isn’t a guaranteed indicator of cerebral palsy.
Below Average IQ
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children with an IQ below the score of 70 are considered “below average” intellectually. Again, having a below average IQ score is not an indicator of cerebral palsy unless other symptoms are also present. Children with low IQs may have problems with daily self-care skills, reasoning, problem solving and learning.
Almost every child goes through behavioral stages, such as the “terrible twos,” being rebellious, and being self-centered. However, with a disorder such as cerebral palsy, these behavioral issues may be heightened. Studies suggest that many children with cerebral palsy will exhibit behavioral symptoms such as excessive anxiety, mood swings, social withdrawal, and prolonged crying and temper tantrums.
Along with delays in cognitive abilities, development delays in general is usually the first indicator that your child may have cerebral palsy. The most common forms of developmental delays include:
- Failure to sit alone without assistance by six months of age
- Failure to roll over without assistance by four months of age
- Failure to walk by age two
- Failure to smile by six weeks of age
- Failure to climb stairs by three years of age
- Failure to stand on one foot (for a few seconds) by three years of age
Are My Child’s Symptoms Immediate?
In severe cases of cerebral palsy, symptoms are usually immediate. In mild cases of cerebral palsy, however, it may take months or even years before you’ll be able to notice symptoms. However, symptoms of cerebral palsy are different from the signs of cerebral palsy, and a physician usually diagnoses the disorder based upon both signs and symptoms. For example, a sign of cerebral palsy can be detecting malformations in the brain, while a symptom can be how a child feels, moves, and acts. Regardless, if the symptoms are not apparent immediately, they almost always surface by 3-5 years of age.
What Should I Do If I Identify Symptoms?
No matter whether you think what you’ve seen is a symptom or not, the fact that you’re doubting the normalcy of what you’re seeing in your child is grounds enough to call your physician and get a medical opinion. Be sure to track what you perceive as a list of symptoms so that you can be specific with your doctor and approach the subject knowledgeably. Doctors have a hard time speaking to parents who “just know something is wrong” because without specificity, they can’t treat your child. Keep a detailed list of what you’ve seen and how often you’ve seen it if it’s performance-related, and if what you’re seeing is something muscle-related, take your child in to see your doctor immediately. The sooner you treat a child with symptoms of cerebral palsy, the less severe the case of cerebral palsy may be.
How Can I Help My Child with Symptoms?
Early intervention is a key factor in helping your child deal with the symptoms associated with cerebral palsy. With an early intervention, an assessment can reveal what types of treatment will work best for your child. For example, most children with cerebral palsy thrive in physical therapy where they will get assistance with balance, coordination, and physical activity.
You can continue physical therapy at home by practicing what your child learns from a licensed physical therapist. In addition, occupational therapy helps with daily living skills, such as feeding, dressing, and hygiene. Of course this greatly depends on the severity of your child’s disabilities. For children who rely on wheelchairs to move around and have difficulties using muscles in their major limbs, physical and occupational therapy may involve learning to use touch-screen tablets and simple sign language.
Children, regardless of their disabilities, have the same needs as other children and need to feel like a welcomed part of their family and community. If you feel your child’s symptoms is causing depression and anxiety, consult with a qualified counselor and/or psychiatrist who specializes in working with children with disabilities.