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For parents: my cerebral palsy

Posted Aug 25 2008 3:01pm 1 Comment

I have decided to share a little about my cerebral palsy because I see that parents of young children with CP have so many questions. I had been reluctant to share too much personal information, because I don't want it to detract from what's really important - namely, that people are people, disability is part of human diversity, and that I think loving your child is the most important thing you can do as a parent . Working to reduce the societal barriers to inclusion and respect comes second. I know that the parents whose blogs I check out now and then get that. So, this is for you parents. I hope it helps in some way.

To start - my childhood was a happy one. The fact that kids with disabilities have happy childhoods should not be a surprise, but to some it may be. Here's a study confirming that point.

I have spastic and athetoid quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Over the years, I have met many other people with CP, and one thing is for sure - cerebral palsy is different in each one of us. I have high tone and spasms in my legs and arms, and low tone in my trunk and neck, and athetosis in my arms and hands.

With CP, life is full of complicated decisions. I've learned that every decision has a positive and negative. Every choice has a positive consequence and a negative consequence. Sometimes the consequences are short term, sometimes they are long term. And, often, when making a choice, you just don't know what the consequences will turn out to be. As I now weigh decisions on my class schedule, exercises, rest, and fun activities that challenge me physically, I understand more how difficult it was for my parents to make decisions for me when I was younger.


As a child I had physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. Mainly, I have had a lot of physical therapy. My physical therapists worked out of Children's Memorial Hospital (and are now at La Rabida Hospital ). Their philosophy entails an emphasis on prone work to strengthen core and trunk muscles. I still do physical therapy, and I am still making progress. Yes, you heard that right - at 22 years of age, I am continuing to make progress. While I have worked many hours with professionals, my parents were the key people. A great deal of work was done outside of “therapy time” – work with my parents and also on my own. When I was younger, my parents had exercises and stretches that they did with me as part of a routine - like each time they changed my diaper they would stretch my hips and hamstrings. The biggest part of my work was spending huge amounts of time prone (lying on my stomach). "Prone lifts" - reaching for toys, playing with blocks, pointing to pictures in books, lying prone in my stroller were just a normal part of my day. When I was younger, I spent a great deal of time on my stomach, and had sitting time and standing time as much smaller parts of the day. I played prone with my cars and trucks and played prone in the swimming pool; it was just part of my life. For a time, I even went to school prone. When I played while lying prone, I didn't prone in the stroller know I was strengthening my back and trunk muscles and gaining head control. At my house, it's just how we did things. I never had walkers or gait trainers because my therapists felt that I would use my tone to operate those things and that would limit my abilities more than help them. My parents carried me around a lot, brought things over to me, and I explored the world on my stomach. I did have a stander when I was younger.

Today, I’m most comfortable lying on the carpet where I can roll from my back to my stomach and change position on my own. And now, I take time throughout my day to do prone lifts on my own. While I do not like doing the lifts, I notice that when I take time off from them, my trunk and gluteal muscles get much weaker, and I have more trouble sitting and standing and also more pain in my back and legs. When I return to doing the lifts, my muscles get stronger again.

I wish I didn’t have to do so much bodywork – I think my parents and therapists were smart to mesh as much of it as possible into our daily life. But, I really got sick of the formal therapy work. I hated (and still don't like) the time it takes in my life, but the benefits of working on my body are so great. I used to think that I was going to walk - therapists and doctors told me that it was possible. But, it didn't happen. I've realized though that the primary benefit of taking care of my body is not about walking. Walking isn't that important. The real benefits are in helping my body do the best it can for me. With a stronger body and less pain, I can travel (like family vacations here and here and my trip with MIUSA to Costa Rica ); go to college; sing; blog; and just do more and have more fun. Without the work, my hips and back would be pulled out of alignment by my spasticity, and that hurts. In the long run, doing therapy takes less time and is less hassle than the alternatives of pain, decreased function, and multiple surgeries. Because of my work, I have good head control and I can sit in my wheelchair for several hours at a time. Those two things are really important to my functioning. Also, because of my work, I can do a standing transfer with the assistance of one (knowledgeable) assistant. This is really important, because without a standing transfer, I would have to be lifted from one place to another - say on and off the toilet. My mother is no longer able to lift me, and without a mechanical lift, my options to go places would be very limited without a standing transfer. Now, my mother (or someone else who is trained) can help me transfer. While I'd rather be totally independent, this assisted transfer is extremely helpful to my daily life. I know that without all my work, I would not be able to do that.

AFOs/Casts/ splints

AFO’s – I have had AFO’s all my life. If made properly (and that usually takes quite a few annoying, time consuming adjustments), I don’t find them uncomfortable. I think it was harder when I was growing than it is now. I do find that the AFO’s get very cold, so I like to have a warmer pad inside the AFO on cold days. (Cold feet increase my spasms.)

For most of my life, I slept in a night body cast for several hours each night. This kept my trunk straight, my hips intact, and my legs abducted (apart). As a young child, I didn’t mind it; as an older child and teen, I hated it because it was very uncomfortable to sleep in that position since my spasticity was so great while I was growing. I could have tolerated it when awake, but sleeping was another story. But, it met the important physical goals that it was designed for; my scoliosis is minimal and my hip sockets are well formed. I have mixed feelings about using the cast.

Splints – I do have a splint that keeps my legs separated that I sometimes use during the day now. I don’t mind using that splint, and I feel the benefit of not having my legs cross.


I had botox on my hamstrings, and for me, it didn’t help at all.

Serial casting:

I had serial casting twice. The first time was when I was about 8, and it was successful in lengthening my Achilles Tendon. The casts didn’t hurt; it was just annoying to wear them and to have weekly appointments for months on end.

The second time I had serial casting, I was 16 years old and I had been having pain in my feet with standing. This time the casts helped a bit, but they hurt a lot. My bones had shifted over the years, and casting could only address the muscle and tendon issues. After the casting, I had bone surgery on both feet.


My experience with surgery (my own and my friends) is that it’s ALWAYS harder than what the surgeon says. Based on my personal experience and that of my friends and acquaintances, I would work and do work very hard to avoid a bone surgery.

I had muscle lengthening surgery when I was 6 years old on my adductor muscles. (These muscles were tight from all the tone pulling my legs into crossing.) Physically, this surgery wasn’t that tough, but I did an intensive physical therapy program afterwards to help me retrain how I used my legs. It all felt time consuming to me, but I know it was very helpful. I made a great deal of progress being able to stand without crossing my legs.

I had my second surgery when I was 16 years old. As I said, my feet were hurting and it was getting hard to put weight on them. This was a major event – rearranging the bones of my feet. It was extremely difficult with long-term pain and an increase in horrible back and leg spasms. I would say it was about a year before the painful spasms of my legs and back reduced back to the pre-surgery level. I went to a pain management clinic for help with the pain, and that was helpful.

Now, I see a major, major benefit of bodywork as avoiding bone surgery – it is so painful, affects the whole body, and takes so much time out of your life. It's mentally very exhausting. (I recall some school aged kids with CP having a major surgery every summer. Yuk!) I would do a lot of bodywork to avoid bone surgery! I've also learned that surgery only straightens out the bone, it doesn't change the CP. So, after the surgery, the CP is still causing the problem that led you to the surgery in the first place.

Also, I wore an eye patch for several months and had 2 surgeries for strabismus (eye muscles).


I had lots of respiratory infections as a baby and young child. They were very debilitating. This changed after about age 7 – I worked with Mary Massery on respiratory exercises. She taught me to take a deep breath, hold it, and then cough. My parents also learned some respiratory physical therapy techniques that were helpful in preventing a cold from turning into a full blown respiratory illness. I also started singing in a choir about that time. My respiratory problems dramatically decreased as my diaphragm got stronger. Now, I still sing, and I know that that is really helpful to my body. Plus, unlike other bodywork, it's fun!


CP affects my GI tract big time. I’ve had trouble with weight gain, severe reflux and vomiting, and constipation. There have been no “magic pills” to solve these problems, but with some effort they are managed to the point of being livable. The severe reflux is one problem I’d really like to get rid of.

Stamina issues

I tire very easily, both mentally and physically. Sitting well, standing well take a lot of cognitive work. My low stamina is a big frustration for me. I need a lot of rest each day. If I don't get it, I really pay the price with increased pain and tightness.


For me, the high tone itself is somewhat painful. It's more limiting than painful, because I can't move so well and I don't feel like I have good control over my body when it's tight. The effect of the spasticity on my hips and back can be painful - the constant pull (to cross my legs) on my hip can be painful in my hip. I've found heat to be very helpful in reducing both the spasticity and the discomfort. I like to keep my legs warm. I use little heating inserts in my AFOs, and when I am lying prone, I often have a heating pad across my butt or legs. A warm bath also relaxes the tightness. Being cold and shivering increases the tightness. Positioning my legs in a way that separates them while simultaneously applying heat helps. Also, actively using the spasming muscles helps to decrease the spasms; if I stand well and actively use my gluteal and leg muscles, the spasms decrease. But, that's hard - it takes a lot of cognitive work to get it right.

A problem with pain that can be overlooked is that pain, even mild pain, is distracting. It takes my attention away from focusing fully on something else. And that is sometimes a problem, more so than the actual discomfort of the pain.


Technology is so very important for kids with cerebral palsy. I cannot handwrite at all, but I can use my computer to send emails, write papers, etc. My Permobil wheelchair lets me change my position on my own - sitting, standing and lying down. Without the Permobil chair, I'd have pressure sores, a lot more pain, and much less function.


This is a big issue. I've written a little about my school experiences here and here . Between my sisters and me, we've tried full-time public school, part-time public school, full and part-time private school, and homeschooling. We did different things at different times. My parents came to view the school system as one tool of many in their toolbox. They learned that it wasn't always in my best interest to do things a certain way, just because things had always been done that way. I've found the low expectations and the challenges of finding capable assistants to be the biggest hurdles in the school system. Interestingly, and wonderfully, I am finding college easier to navigate than k - 12.

I think that it is extremely important to not have one's time filled with bodywork and schoolwork and no time for fun. That's part of the tricky balancing act that families have to figure out.

Pursuing strengths

I see it as so very important for kids with CP to pursue their strengths. It is very easy to focus on everything that needs improvement. But, for me, my strengths are what helped me fit in with other kids, what gave me confidence, what gave me fun, and what now may help me to be employed or have fun as an adult. I am so glad that my parents helped me to have singing lessons and choir experiences. I am glad I didn't focus on handwriting in elementary school. It was a good decision to take higher level Spanish classes in highschool and skip some math classes; my strengths are auditory and my learning disability is visual.

Parents/Making decisions

There are things I wish my parents had done differently. For example, I wish I had homeschooled more in elementary school. I think it would have been less stressful to me, and more efficient for my time. I think school took up too much of my time, particularly when the way things were done didn't match my learning needs and simply wasted my energy. I wish my parents had intervened sooner with one of my problem school aides. And, I wonder how life would have been with less therapy time. There were plenty of times that I hated going to therapy.

I am very grateful that my parents were able to go against the culture or the "way things were always done". I am so glad they were strong advocates for me. They tell me that they learned that over time. They didn't start out that way.

I also now appreciate how very difficult decisions for me really were. As I have taken over more and more responsibility for these decisions, I realize that there are not easy answers. My parents did the best they could. And, I have learned from them to not dwell on the mistakes or the things I wish I had done differently, but to keep learning and move on. I think if my parents were wracked with guilt and fear about making mistakes, I'd pick up that attitude also. And that attitude could paralyze future decision making.

This post was a joint effort with my mom. I hope it is helpful to parents. Again, these are my personal experiences; everybody is different. Let me know if you have any other questions.

So, my summary points - love your child, promote strengths, do the best you can with the complicated decisions, think "outside the box", and don't be too hard on yourself.

It's very important that we all work to change society so that those of us with cerebral palsy can be full members. Support the ADA Restoration Act , model inclusive attitudes and advocate for a better world.

UPDATE: My parents and I continue to think of many other things that could be helpful to a family with a young child. Here are a couple more.

-During the years when I rebelled against formal therapy, (in addition to meshing the work into my day like I described above), my parents tried to make therapy fun. I had books read to me or played guessing games or various things to help me "enjoy" the time more. It didn't really work, but it did help. Also, when I was about 4 years old, something that worked was a "reward" for "working hard" in therapy. I got to do an art project that was only done after a session during which I cooperated (so the reward was not based on "what" I did, but just that I gave a reasonable effort). My mom had a stash of paper plates that I decorated with glitter, paint, felt, whatever, and then she put them on display on the wall. Whenever someone came over, they would ask (with some prompting by my parents) about all the art on the wall. I would feel proud of my accomplishments. My parents never wanted to punish me for not cooperating with something that was inherently unpleasant, so they just used rewards or lack of rewards. And, I did get a time out if I would bite the therapist or do something really nasty. ; ) No art project on those days!

But, I do think the best way to work on my body was just having it be part of my day.

-Also, my parents came to learn that no "expert", in health care or education, was more expert than they were. They used "experts" like consultants, weighing what they would say against their own experience with me and against their gut feel. (And, by the way, they didn't get the hang of this until after they were misled a few times.) They also learned to be very creative as they weighed different choices, starting with what their goals were for me and then deciding how to use others' advice.

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There are alot of great equipment that can help parents with mobility needs for there child. david, Carolina Medical Equipment
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