Cerebral Palsy and Autism
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Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), sometimes coexists in children with cerebral palsy. Both problems originate in the brain, but they manifest differently. Whereas cerebral palsy primarily affects the part of the brain that corresponds with motor functioning, autism seems to relate more to social interactions, language, and behavior.
More About Autism
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), autism is a general term for a “group of complex neurodevelopmental disorders” distinguished by certain behaviors and repetitive patterns that generally manifest during early childhood.
In the past, autism was categorized into three types, which included:
- Autistic Disorder
- Asperger Syndrome
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD)
However, differentiating the categories was sometimes unclear, and there was quite a bit of overlap, causing confusion for practitioners, schools, and caregivers. Since the update of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) was completed in 2013, these categories have been merged into one diagnosis encompassing the symptoms of all previously known types. This condition is now called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Autism covers a wide spectrum of symptoms, ranging from extremely mild, all the way to severe impairments in functioning that seriously impact daily life. The phrase “on the spectrum” is commonly used, and refers to a child who manifests characteristic symptoms somewhere within this range. For instance, a child with a low score on the ASD scale may be able to carry out daily tasks just as anyone who isn’t on the spectrum, while a child who scores high on the spectrum (meaning many autistic symptoms) may have extreme difficulties with learning, socialization, communication, and performing the routine functions of daily life.
Although children with autism will manifest quite different symptoms depending on how severely they have been affected, some of the most common signs and symptoms may include:
- Poor eye contact
- Extreme preoccupation with particular objects or topics
- Difficulty viewing things from another’s perspective
- Emotional outbursts
- Speech delays, including delayed “babbling” speech as an infant
- Inability to understand others’ body language and voice tones
- Inability to understand and interpret the facial expressions of others
- Repetitive behaviors, performing a task over and over
- Obsessive behavior, such as insisting that toys be lined up according to color
- Hypersensitivity to touch and sound, disliking human contact
- Inappropriate or awkward speech, or no speech at all
- Difficulties interacting in social situations, including an inability to make friends
- Spinning in circles repetitively, flapping hands repetitively
Autistic children don’t always display the same symptoms, and the degree of each symptom can vary, again, depending on the overall severity of the disorder in a particular child. In addition, there are children with typical development who normally display one or two of the symptoms without raising significant concern for autism.
Autism and Cerebral Palsy
According to a study entitled, “Cerebral Palsy, Co-Occurring Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Motor Functioning – Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, USA, 2008,” published in the Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology journal, 7% of children with cerebral palsy who participated in the research had autism. The study included numerous children living in four states: Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Wisconsin.
In the children who participated in the study, autism was more common in those children with non-spastic cerebral palsy, in particular, the hypotonic form, when compared to those with spastic cerebral palsy. The study also found that autism was more prevalent in children with cerebral palsy as compared to children who don’t have the disorder.
In another study, published by the Department of Pediatrics, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, in Alberta, Canada, the results indicate that “specific genetic variants” found in some children can have an impact on factors that contribute to the development of both disorders. For example, certain genetic variants can play a role in both abnormal motor development and abnormal intellectual and social-communication development. Hence, there appears to be an association between the two conditions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early intervention treatment services can help children with autism significantly. Early intervention starts between birth and 3 years of age and consists of different therapeutic modalities (physical, occupational, behavioral, play, and speech therapies) that help children with talking, walking, participating in the activities of daily life (such as brushing teeth and getting dressed), and interacting with others.
In addition to early intervention therapy, other treatments for children with autism may include:
- Behavioral therapy
- Augmentative communication
- Dietary approaches
- Complementary and alternative medicine
Although there is no cure for ASD, research indicates that, with the appropriate therapeutic approach, many children with autism can live productive lives.
For example, a child with mild symptoms on the spectrum may benefit from simply being exposed to more social activities within a supervised environment. According to the CDC, children with higher functioning autism can greatly benefit by receiving intensive social skills training, whether provided by the community or by teachers in the school setting.
What To Do If You Think Your Child Has Autism
The diagnosis of autism should be made by a trained physician and, typically, a complementary team of healthcare providers, such as a developmental pediatrician along with specialized therapists. So, the first step you’ll need to take if you suspect that your child has autism is to speak with your child’s doctor to get the process started.
If you feel there are any issues when consulting with your doctor, you can ask for a second medical opinion or contact the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY) at 1-800-695-0285. For any additional information, feel free to contact us, and we’ll do our best to assist you.