Both cerebral palsy and Down syndrome are considered disabilities, and they have certain characteristics in common. It is also possible for a child to be born with both conditions. Both children with cerebral palsy and those with Down syndrome are likely to face lifelong challenges, including discrimination, physical challenges, mental and emotional health issues, and problems with inclusion and social isolation. Parents, caregivers, physicians, therapists, and other adults in these children’s lives can make a big difference, though, and give them the best chance to have long, healthy, and satisfying lives.
What Is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a neurological or brain condition. It is largely a disorder of movement and muscle tone, but it can have far-reaching complications and symptoms that range from mild to severe and debilitating depending on the individual. Brain damage or a disruption in normal brain development that occurs in the womb, during labor and delivery, or shortly after birth causes cerebral palsy. What causes that brain damage is not always known but may be genetic, negligence during delivery, asphyxia, or lack of oxygen to the brain, a mother’s illness, or many other factors.
The disorder is life-long and there is no cure, but the symptoms are wide-ranging and may be so mild that they are barely detectable in some but completely debilitating in others. Characteristic symptoms include either too much or too little muscle tone, rigid muscles, spastic muscles, poor muscle coordination, slow and writhing movements, delayed motor development, difficulty walking, difficulty swallowing, drooling, difficulty speaking, and seizures.
What is Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome is a chromosomal birth defect. Chromosomes are the bundles or packages of genes in the cells of the body. Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46. Down syndrome occurs when a child develops in the womb with an extra copy of chromosome 21, for a total of three of this particular chromosome. The condition is sometimes called Trisomy 21.
This extra chromosome causes the developmental delays and all the characteristics seen in children and adults with Down syndrome. There are some distinctive physical features, or symptoms, of Down syndrome, for instance, which include flattened facial features, small ears, small hands and feet, a short neck, and short height.
Each person with Down syndrome is unique and has different abilities and limitations, but there are some common complications that they experience:
- Low muscle tone and loose joints
- Hearing loss
- Congenital heart defects
- Eye diseases
- Sleep apnea
- Lower than average IQ
- Ear infections
Approximately one in 700 babies in the U.S. is born with Down syndrome, and while the cause of an extra chromosome is unknown, a major risk factor is the age of the mother. The older the mother is, the greater the risk that she will have a baby born with Down syndrome. Because of many potential health complications, the life expectancy of someone with Down syndrome used to be low. Now, with advances in treatment it is close to 60.
How These Conditions Are Similar
Both Down syndrome and cerebral palsy are conditions that occur in the womb or near birth. Neither one can be cured, but both can be managed with physical, educational, social, and psychological interventions. Treatments can be used to manage symptoms of either condition, such as seizure medications for someone with cerebral palsy or surgery for heart defects in a child with Down syndrome.
Children with one of these conditions are likely to face some degree of physical disability. For a child with cerebral palsy it could mean difficulty with balance or occasional spastic movements, or it could mean being completely unable to walk. Children with Down syndrome are generally less physically disabled than those with moderate to severe cerebral palsy, but they still face physical challenges. Most have lower muscle tone than is typical. Both types of condition usually cause delays in physical development.
How They Differ
There are important similarities between Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, but there are also a lot of differences. The first is that they have completely different causes: one is a chromosomal abnormality while the other has multiple causes and risk factors that lead to brain damage. Another big difference is that there is a lot more variety in symptoms and complications from one individual to another with cerebral palsy.
Symptoms vary quite a bit by individual for cerebral palsy, but so to do complications. There is a long list of potential complications that a child with cerebral palsy may experience, including gastrointestinal illness, hearing impairment, asthma, periodontal disease, limb deformities, lung diseases, malnutrition, and many more. Down syndrome may cause complications too, but the list is shorter.
Intellectual disability is also a big difference. While some children born with cerebral palsy will have a lower IQ, for most the condition does not affect IQ or intellectual ability at all. With Down syndrome, on the other hand, all individuals have some degree of intellectual disability and a lower IQ than the average for their age.
Also important is how these conditions are diagnosed. Down syndrome can be diagnosed definitively by looking at a baby’s chromosomes. If the baby has three copies of chromosome 21, he or she has Down syndrome. This can even be tested for while the fetus is developing. Cerebral palsy is much more complicated to diagnose, and even experts don’t always agree on the criteria. Sometimes cerebral palsy is considered a group of disorders rather than one condition because there is so much variety in how it is expressed.
While cerebral palsy and Down syndrome have some things in common, the children living with these conditions face many different challenges. They all need support from professionals as well as loved ones, therapies, and interventions that help them manage symptoms, treat complications, and live lives that are fulfilling and satisfying.