What is Cerebral Palsy?

Between 600 and 700 children are born with cerebral palsy in Australia each year. That is one in every 400 births or one baby every 18 hours. So what is cerebral palsy and what can be done to help children with this condition?

Cerebral palsy is the name for a group of non-progressive disorders of movement and posture. “Cerebral” refers to the brain and “palsy” refers to muscle problems such as weakness, paralysis or poor muscle control. The messages from the brain may be sent to the rest of the body incorrectly, to the wrong place, at the wrong time or not at all. This means that muscles may be too tight or totally relaxed or movements may be clumsy, shaky or jerky.

Cerbral palsy is “non-progressive” meaning that it does not get worse, though some symptoms may become more noticable with time. It begins early in life and is permanent. It is not inherited, is not a disease and is not contagious.

Most children with cerebral palsy are healthy and have a normal life expectancy. They may have other conditions such as epilepsy, or intellectual, visual or hearing impairments. The muscle problems resulting from cerebral palsy effect movement and posture and this in turn effects daily living skills, communication and socialisation. The amount of impairment varies from person to person and while some have significant difficulties and need ongoing support, others may have only minor difficulties and be fully independent.

Signs of cerbral plasy include:

  • Early feeding difficulties
  • Delayed development
  • Poor muscle control
  • Muscle spasms and involuntary movements
  • Clumsiness
  • Excessive drooling
  • Slurred speech or no speech
  • Stiffness or paralysis

Some common difficulties in people with cerebral palsy include:

  • Vision problems particularly squints
  • Hearing problems
  • Speech problems. These can range from having no speech to only mild difficulties. Speech problems are related to difficulty controlling the muscles in the mouth, tongue, palate and voice box. These difficulties can also effect sucking, chewing, eating and swallowing.
  • Spatial perception - Some children with cerebral palsy cannot perceive space and relate it to their own bodies.
  • Epilepsy - Epilepsy occurs in around 1 in 3 children with cerebral palsy and it is usually controlled with medication.
  • Intellectual or learning disability - There is a wide range of intellectual ability in people with cerebral palsy. Some have normal intelligence and others can have an intellectual disability ranging from mild to severe. This can be difficult to accurately assess in young children with movement problems. More severe movement problems do not mean the person will have an intellectual disability.

There are four types of cerebral palsy:

  • Spastic cerebral palsy means there is stiffness or tightness in the muscles and is the most common type.
  • Athetoid cerebral palsy involves uncontrolled movements when the person tries to move.
  • Ataxic cerebral palsy involves problems with balance and coordination. There can be problems with controlling the amount and timing of movements and with shaky or unsteady movements called tremors.
  • Mixed cerebral palsy is the term used when more than one type of problem is evident.

Cerebral palsy is also described according to the parts of the body it affects:

  • Quadriplegia: all four limbs are affected and sometimes the muscles of the face & mouth.
  • Diplegia: all four limbs are affected, but the legs more so than the arms.
  • Hemiplegia: one side of the body is affected.
  • Paraplegia: both legs, but neither arm is affected.

Common questions

If I think my child has cerebral palsy what do I do? Talk to your doctor about your concerns and ask to be referred to a paediatrician for a detailed assessment of your child. Following the assessment your child may be referred for therapy services to help your child develop the skills they need.

What kind of support does my child need? Support needs vary from child to child so each child should be individually assessed to determine what is most important for them. Many children benefit from physiotherapy services for motor skills, speech pathology for feeding and communication skills and occupational therapy for fine motor and sensory issues. Some children require support in the form of specialsied equipment and this is often provided through an agency such as Novita which specialises in supporting children with physical disabilities. Children diagnosed with cerebral palsy before the age of six can access services through the Betterstart program funded by the federal government which provides funding for children to access free private therapy services though registered providers.

What causes cerebral palsy? It is not genetic or inherited and it is not a disease. It is not passed from person to person. Around 75% of cases are thought to be caused by damage or changes to the brain that occured prior to birth. It can also be caused by damage, lack of oxygen or extreme prematurity at birth. The lower the birth weight the higher the chances of having cerebral palsy. In many cases the cause cannot be determined.

For more information about cerebral palsy visit:

Cerebral Palsy Australia

Novita Children’s Services

For more information about speech pathology services and betterstart browse our website

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