Cerebral Palsy and Autism

A Guatemalan girl named Paula was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after her birth. After becoming aggressive and antisocial, doctors later diagnosed her with autism. Paula’s story is not uncommon — 1 in 10 children with cerebral palsy will also have autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There is no cure for either condition, although treatments and therapies can help manage them.

Is Cerebral Palsy a Form of Autism?

Cerebral palsy is not a form of autism.

According to the Mayo Clinic, cerebral palsy — which develops after the brain suffers severe damage before, during, or shortly after birth — causes problems with muscle control and tone, movement, and posture.

On the other hand, autism mainly affects behavior, speech, and social interactions. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the causes of autism are not fully known, but researchers believe that genetic problems may play a big role in how the condition develops.

Autism is more common than cerebral palsy. According to the CDC, 1 in 59 children has autism, while 1 in 323 has cerebral palsy.

While not one and the same, cerebral palsy and autism share similarities.

Both cerebral palsy and autism: 

  • Are considered groups of disorders with different subtypes
  • Are more likely to affect boys than girls, according to the Mayo Clinic and the CDC
  • Can negatively affect a child’s ability to learn and interact with others
  • Can occur alongside other conditions

It is also possible for cerebral palsy and autism to occur together.

What Is Autism?

Autism is a condition that causes abnormal brain development. People with autism will behave, think, or interact differently than those who are not affected.

Notable symptoms of autism include: 

  • Social isolation and lack of social skills
  • Failure to recognize or express emotions
  • Problems speaking
  • Refusal to make eye contact or respond to their name

These symptoms typically appear by the time a child turns 2 years old.

As previously mentioned, researchers still do not know the specific cause of autism. Current science suggests that genetics, family history, and other factors — such as infections, medications, or pollution — may play a role in how babies develop autism.

No studies have found a link to autism and vaccines, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Autism cannot be prevented or cured and is a lifelong condition. If your child is diagnosed with autism, treatments may improve their communication, behavior, and relationships with others.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of autism can vary with each person. This is why autism is considered a “spectrum” disorder.

While one child may experience obvious symptoms (such as speech difficulties or social impairment) and receive a proper diagnosis, others with mild forms of autism may not be diagnosed until they reach adulthood, according to the nonprofit organization Autism Speaks.

Types of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Before 2013, ASD was broken up into a few different conditions. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) now considers each of these conditions to be a part of the autism spectrum and not separate disorders.

Autistic Disorder

Children diagnosed with autistic disorder, sometimes known as “classic” autism, typically have problems communicating and forming relationships with others.

Other symptoms of autistic disorder include: 

  • Lack of eye contact
  • Repetitive body motions
  • Resistance to change

Today, the terms “autistic disorder” and “ASD” are sometimes used interchangeably, according to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10).

Asperger’s Syndrome

People with Asperger’s syndrome typically do not experience language issues or antisocial behavior. Instead, they may have difficulty interacting with other people in social situations.

Symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome include: 

  • Failure to understand nonverbal communication and sarcasm
  • Obsession with a handful of interests
  • Repetitive, robotic, or loud speech

Most people with Asperger’s syndrome do not have notable mental impairments, unlike other conditions that now fall under the autism spectrum. The term “Asperger’s” is still commonly used today even though it is considered outdated.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS)

Pervasive developmental disorder was an alternate name for ASD before the DSM-5 updated the definition of autism in 2013. It also signifies another type of condition that falls under the autism spectrum.

Children with pervasive developmental disorder (also called pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified, or PDD-NOS) have some symptoms of autism but cannot be diagnosed with autistic disorder or Asperger’s syndrome.

Autism Speaks gives the following example: Someone with PDD-NOS may have trouble interacting with others, but won’t have other notable symptoms of autism, such as repetitive motions or behaviors.

The Link Between Autism and Cerebral Palsy

When a child with cerebral palsy also has autism, the two conditions are said to be co-occurring.

In a study presented by the CDC, nearly 7% of children with cerebral palsy also have some form of autism.

The CDC further notes that autism spectrum disorder was more common in children with cerebral palsy than those without.

Researchers continue to study why autism and cerebral palsy can co-occur, with some pointing to genetic problems as a possible factor. No clear link between the two conditions has been discovered at this time.

Treatment for Autism and Cerebral Palsy

Treatments for cerebral palsy and autism can vary depending on how severe each condition is.

For best results, take your child to see a doctor who has experience treating both cerebral palsy and autism.

Common treatments for autism and cerebral palsy include: 

  • Medication: Medication can help manage or reduce symptoms of both cerebral palsy and autism. Medicine injections can ease tight or spastic muscles, which are typical symptoms of cerebral palsy. Other medications can reduce symptoms of autism, like anxiety or overactivity.
  • Therapy: Different types of therapy can help improve your child’s well-being. Behavioral therapy can help your child learn social skills and manage their emotions, while physical therapy can increase their muscle strength. Therapy should be tailored to your child’s personal needs.

Though raising a child with cerebral palsy and autism may prove challenging, treatments can improve their quality of life and make caregiving easier for you.

Author:Birth Injury Justice Center
Birth Injury Justice Center

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

Last modified: October 16, 2019

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