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Children with dreams

Children with dreams
February 27, 2001

Cerebral palsy affects around one in 400 children born in Australia every year. While it may make life a little bit more of a challenge, it certainly doesn't have to mean giving up on the more physical aspects of childhood. Wendy Champagne investigates.

Paralympic Team Captian Priya Cooper appeared to be a healthy baby until she was twelve months old. "But when I began walking," she says, "I went up on my toes, with my back arched. And that's when my parents knew something wasn't quite right."

Priya was diagnosed with cerebral palsy - a non-progressive disorder affecting posture and movement, resulting from a lack of development or damage to the part of the brain controlling movement. The damage to the brain usually occurs before, during or immediately after birth. Apart from the movement and posture abnormalities there are usually other neurological and mental problems associated with this condition.

While every child who has cerebral palsy experiences difficulties with movement and muscle control, the symptoms range from mild clumsiness in a leg or an arm to complete inability to move muscles, loss of sight, impaired speech, hearing and intellectual disability. In some cases squint, epilepsy and behavioural problems can also occur.

One out of every four hundred children born in Australia has cerebral palsy, and the incidence is on the rise. Although scientists admit that in 70 percent of cases neither cause nor risk factor can be identified, they believe the damage to the brain usually occurs before, around or soon after the baby is born. Exposure to certain infections, like rubella in the early months of pregnancy has been linked to cerebral palsy. Serious infections, trauma, child abuse, prematurity and meningitis are also risk factors for cerebral palsy.

What science can say definitively is that cerebral palsy is not a sickness or disease; nor is it contagious, yet sadly there is no known cure. The symptoms will persist throughout life, but with the early introduction of movement therapies the effects of the disability can be lessened. Surgery maybe necessary in some cases for the release of contractures.

Until the 1970's, the Australian government carried out a disturbing policy of encouraging the removal of children with cerebral palsy from public view. Sufferers were sent to special schools and homes to receive the specific attention they required - a course of action often resulting in feelings of alienation and heartbreak for the children concerned.

"I talked to older people at the Games," says Priya, "people who were hidden away, and that's just so scary. I obviously came in at the right time. When it was suggested to my parents that I go to a special school, my mum said, 'No way!'

"At school I was obviously different but no one ever made any comment. I just thought everyone else was a bit weird. I did ballet, I did everything I could, and it was never an issue that I had CP."

While swimming helps keep Priya fit, and give her more mobility, day to day she spends about 70 percent of her time in a wheelchair. "It's just easier to get around. Things take me a little longer than an able-bodies person; I have to prepare in advance. When it comes to taking out the bins, my roommate does that - you obviously surround yourself with people who are going to help you out."

It's that kind of support that makes all the difference in the life of a child with cerebral palsy, especially those with severe symptoms. In general children with cerebral palsy have to work a lot harder than other children, "They have dreams and aspirations the same as able-bodies kids," says Priya, "but they need much more support to realize them.

"There's a thing called a heart-walker that gets kids with severe CP up and walking. If I had enough money I'd spend it giving all those children a heart-walker; it'd be fantastic!'

There are four types of cerebral palsy and most people have a combination of two or more types.

Spastic Cerebral Palsy

Spacticity means stiffness or tightness of the muscles. The muscles are stiff because the message to move the muscles is sent through the damaged part of the brain. When an able-bodied person performs a movement, some sets of muscles tighten while others relax. In a child with spastic cerebral palsy both groups of muscles can tighten up, making movement very difficult. This is the most common form of cerebral palsy. Contractures, Aphonia, seizures and mental retardation are common occurrences in this group.

Atheoid Cerebral Palsy

Atheosis is the word used to describe the involuntary, unpredictable movements that characterise this type of cerebral palsy. A child with atheoid cerebral palsy moves involuntarily, even at rest, and their muscles are often very weak. They usually have normal intelligence.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy

Ataxia describes shaky, unsteady movements or tremors. Ataxic cerebral palsy affects fine hand movements, and balance, which makes walking difficult. The individual has a clumsy disposition and normal intelligence.

Spastic Diplegia

In this case the upper limb extremities are spared and the person usually has a spastic (scissor gait) and normal intelligence.

Go Casual For A Cause: The Spastic Centres and Cerebral Palsy Associations of Australia are urging everyone to discard their business attire or school uniforms for a day between march 2nd and 9th, 2001.

References:Priya Cooper
The Spastic Centre of NSW 9972 8111
Carers Association of Australia

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