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Top five frequently asked questions about cerebral palsy

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Cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability in children. It affects movement and posture and can be caused by an injury to the brain during pregnancy. Cerebral palsy is a life-long condition and can be accompanied by disturbances of sensation, communication issues, visual, hearing and behavioural issues. 

Novita supports and sees many people living with cerebral palsy (CP) every day and receives many common questions from parents and clients. Some of these questions include how to receive support for CP, how to manage it and how it can affect the body. In this article, we cover the top five questions we receive and give tips on how to find the support and care you need.  

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1. What causes cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a general term for a group of conditions caused by non-progressive disturbances such as abnormal development or damage to the developing brain during pregnancy, birth or infancy. Sometimes it can be caused by genetic factors.

Risk factors for cerebral palsy may include:

  • Premature birth
  • Stroke
  • Lack of oxygen in the brain
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Previous difficult pregnancies
  • Multiple births
  • An infection or trauma in the womb

Though it can be a scary or daunting diagnosis, support is available through early intervention, which we will cover in our next section.


Quick tip: The Cerebral Palsy Alliance has some great education about causes and risk factors of cerebral palsy.


2. How does early intervention assist with cerebral palsy?

Early Childhood Intervention provides support to parents and caregivers of young children diagnosed with cerebral palsy, or at risk of cerebral palsy. We recommend parents begin early intervention for children with any type or severity of CP as early as possible. This is because the brain develops a lot in the early years, and is at its most responsive and greatest ability to adapt. During this period, therapists will address the individual needs of a baby and young child (this could be movement, communication and learning skills.)

Parents should seek early intervention if they notice:

If parents are concerned about their child’s development they should seek advice and intervention services as early as they can, especially if:

  • Child is not able to hold their head up independently by the age of 4-months old 
  • Child is not yet sitting by 8-9 months old 
  • Child is preferring to use one side of their body 
  • Stiffness of their arms or legs observed or felt eg when dressing the child 

Activities for early intervention of CP include:

  • Physiotherapy to support the development of motor skills such as rolling, sitting and standing  
  • Speech therapy to promote early communication skills, and advise on drinking and eating skills  
  • Orthotics may be required to optimise the positioning and alignment of the child’s feet when they are standing 
  • Occupational therapy to support fine motor skill development such as how to use their hands for play 


Quick tip: The rate of learning and focus of development varies from child to child and changes as they grow. The Novita therapy team of occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists, social workers, educators and speech pathologists provides input that adapts accordingly to meet these changing and varied needs as the child grows to become school-age and an adolescent and an adult.


3. What are the types of cerebral palsy?

The most common feature of cerebral palsy is change in muscle tone.

Spastic Cerebral Palsy presents as stiffness or tightness of muscles. This arises from damage to the part of the brain that sends the messages to the muscles (the motor cortex).  Movements may be difficult, appearing stiff and jerky.

Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy presents as variable, involuntary movements due to damage in the part of the brain that enables a person to produce smooth, and controlled movements. These movements are often more evident when the child performs or attempts a movement. There are three main types of dyskinetic movement disorders:

Dystonia which causes twisting and repetitive movements and abnormal posturing.

Athetosis involves slow, writhing movements that occur particularly in the feet and hands, but may affect the whole body.

Chorea presents as irregular and unpredictable movements.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy is the least common type of CP and involves shaky movements or tremors, and difficulties with balance and coordination. These children often have a disturbance of the part of the brain that controls balance (the cerebellum).

Mixed type of Cerebral Palsy is a very common presentation and often there is evidence of both spasticity and dystonia.

Cerebral Palsy can also be described by the area affected:

Unilateral (hemiplegic) cerebral palsy
– one side (arm and/or leg) of the body is affected.

Bilateral cerebral palsy
– Both legs affected and to a lesser degree the arms (diplegic) Both legs and arms, and trunk and face may also be affected (quadriplegic.)
– Both legs and arms, and trunk and face may also be affected (quadriplegic.)

4. How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?

Cerebral palsy is diagnosed through an examination and series of tests conducted by a Pediatrician (doctor) and trained physiotherapists. Diagnosis is not always straightforward, and it can take some time to receive an answer.  The following assessments and investigations have been found together to be reliable in correctly diagnosing cerebral palsy.   

The General Movements Assessment (GMA) is a test conducted to help identify issues that may lead to cerebral palsy. The GMA is usually used to identify abnormalities in movement from birth to 20 weeks of age. If a GMA test suggests that an infant is at risk of cerebral palsy, you should start early intervention as quickly as possible. 

Imaging such as ultrasound or a MRI may be indicated to confirm if there is any damage or abnormality in the child’s brain. 

If the child is older than 3 months they may be assessed using a test called the Hammersmith Infant Neurological assessment. This assesses the child’s ability move, how they posture themselves and their reflexes.  


Quick tip: The following classification tools provide a consistent language to describe the functional abilities of the child regarding their mobility, use of their hands to handle objects in daily activities and communication.


5. What services are available for cerebral palsy?

The Novita therapy team of occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists, social workers, educators and speech pathologists can provide the following services for children, young people and adults living with cerebral palsy:

  • Assessments to determine developmental need 
  • Early intervention 
  • Regular review assessments (CP surveillance) to monitor progress and address changes 
  • Goal-directed therapy and task-specific training 
  • Support for transition to preschool and school 
  • Equipment prescription and training 
  • Family support services 
  • Liaison with Rehabilitation Pediatricians


Quick tip: Read about our clients who achieve their amazing while living with CP.


For More Information

If you would like information or free advice on cerebral palsy, speak to someone in our friendly team on 1300 668 482 or visit our Contact Us page for more ways to get in touch.