Assistive technology is a broad term that includes any device or piece of equipment that can be used to help a person perform some type of activity or to improve an individual’s ability to function. For a child with cerebral palsy, there are many different types of devices that can be used to make life easier, to allow participation in more activities, to enhance learning, and to improve communication, hearing, and mobility. Assistive technology is crucial in helping a child succeed and transition to an independent adulthood.
How Children Can Benefit from Technology
Cerebral palsy causes a number of different types of disabilities, from issues with walking to hearing difficulties to the ability to communicate or even hold a pencil. The severity of these disabilities ranges from mild to severe and can impair quality of life, independence, and all aspects of health from physical to emotional and social. The use of assistive tech devices can provide a child with a great number of benefits:
- Better academic performance
- More inclusion in activities and recreation
- A more engaged social life
- Greater communication with others and a better response to a child’s needs as a result
- Greater ability to express emotions
- More self-confidence
- Improved independence and self-sufficiency
- Increased opportunities
While the symptoms and complications of cerebral palsy can vary widely from one individual to the next, most children with this condition have some degree of mobility limitation. Some children cannot walk at all, while others can walk with assistance, and some are able to walk without any aids. Aids used to enhance mobility can be very low-tech, including the use of walkers and non-electric wheelchairs.
There are also aids that use more technology, such as electric wheelchairs. These help children who struggle to use their arms and hands get around with just the touch of a button or joystick. Lifts can be used to help a child move between floors in the home, into and out of vehicles, and from sitting to standing positions. A power scooter is another option for mobility.
An exciting type of technology that holds great promise for helping disabled individuals gain more mobility is called functional electrical stimulation. A small device is attached to the child and delivers electrical impulses to stimulate specific muscles. It activates the nerves and causes the muscle to move, training muscles to function better over time. Studies using this device have proven that children with spastic cerebral palsy can benefit by being able to walk more easily and with less pain. This is not a device that will work for every child, but many who walk with difficulty may benefit.
Technology for Communication
For many children with cerebral palsy, communication is an issue. A child may have muscles in the throat and mouth that are affected by the condition, making speaking difficult. This makes it challenging to express emotions and needs, to learn in school, and to be social with others. Children can work with speech and language therapists to improve communication skills, and these professionals often use assistive devices:
- Electronic communication boards. This device is much like a tablet, or may be a tablet with a special app or program. It presents a child with a choice of letters, words, numbers, and pictures. The child can select them to communicate thoughts, needs, and ideas. Depending on a child’s ability level he or she may need instruction from a speech and language therapist to use a communication board successfully.
- Low-tech communication boards. The low-technology version of this is simply using pencil and paper to express oneself. This is only useful for a child who can grip a writing implement and use it to clearly write words or draw pictures.
- Speech-generating devices. A more advanced version of an electronic communication board actually generates speech for the child. He or she types or taps words or sentences and the device translates it into speech that others can understand clearly.
- Eye-tracking devices. Some children are unable to use their arms, hands, or fingers to tap at images on an electronic communication board. These individuals can benefit from an eye-tracking device, which follows where the eyes are moving and looking. When the child looks at a specific word or image on the communication board, it is selected without the need to actually tap on the surface.
Typing and Writing Devices
Many children with cerebral palsy struggle with the fine motor skills needed to hold a pen or pencil and to hit individual keys on a keyboard. Written communication is important for children who cannot speak at all or easily, but it is also necessary for academic work. There are several devices available that can help a child write more easily or at all.
Simple, low-technology grips or specially-designed pencils can help a child hold a writing implement and manipulate it. A weighted pen or pencil, for instance, can help a child get more leverage and more easily manage an implement while learning how to write. A steadying device can be attached to a pen or pencil to help a child with shaky movements. A desk with a surface that can be adjusted for height and angle can also help a child get the right alignment and most comfortable position for writing.
A child who struggles to use traditional writing implements may benefit from being allowed to type, but some children also have a hard time using keyboards. A simple device is a pointer that is attached by Velcro to the hand or wrist and allows a child to press small buttons, on keyboards, tablets, or phones. Other typing technologies that can help children communicate more effectively include word prediction software and spell- and grammar-check.
Hearing loss is an issue that many children with cerebral palsy struggle with, but technology has come a long way in providing devices to improve the ability to hear. Hearing aids, for instance, can improve hearing for those who are not deaf but who have some hearing loss. For children with more severe hearing challenges, a cochlear implant may be a good option.
A cochlear implant has a small device that is inserted beneath the skin in the ear and an outer piece that sits behind the ear. It works by stimulating the auditory nerve and bypassing damaged parts in the ear that prevent hearing. Getting this device requires surgery and it can take several weeks before it is ready to use and for the child to be able to hear.
Getting a cochlear implant is not recommended for all children with hearing difficulties. It is expensive, requires surgery, and comes with some rare but serious health risks. It is particularly recommended for those children who have multiple special needs and complications from cerebral palsy. Being able to improve hearing can be a big benefit for a child struggling with several disabilities.
Other devices that can help children who are hard of hearing include assistive listening systems. These are devices that capture sound, amplify it, and deliver it to the ear. A good device can help a child hear a teacher speaking in the classroom, for instance, even with a lot of background noise.
Technology to Help with Daily Activities
In addition to the assistive technology devices that help children with specific issues, like hearing, writing, or communicating, there is a number of devices that help with the activities of daily living. These are devices that make life easier, that make a child more self-sufficient, and that help them achieve greater independence:
- Toilet seats, safety bars, and bathing benches in the bathroom
- Sponges and brushes with longer handles
- Eating utensils with grips or that are weighted
- Plates and bowls with non-slip bottoms
- Non-skid rugs
- Dressing aids
- Tables that can be moved up and down
- Adaptive scissors and art supplies
- Key turners
- Aids for positioning in bed or on couches and chairs
A child with cerebral palsy can benefit in major ways from using assistive technology. Parents can help their children get what they need by working with the public schools. With an evaluation for needs, a child can get an individualized education plan through the special education department. This may include assistive devices that the school will then provide. Parents or adults with cerebral palsy can contact government organizations, advocacy groups, and community groups to seek assistance with paying for and getting these much-needed devices.