Cerebral Palsy


You may be surprised to read that cerebral palsy or CP is the most common form of physical disability in Australian children. According to Cerebral Palsy Australia, the national peak body of organisations that work with people with CP, each year between 600 and 700 infants are born with CP. Currently, around 34,000 Australians are living with the condition. This article looks at the challenges for people living with CP and explores the most commonly asked questions and misconceptions about the condition.


What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is not actually a single condition. With ‘cerebral’ referring to the brain and ‘palsy’ referring to weakness or lack of muscle control, cerebral palsy describes a group of non-progressive disorders affecting posture, movement and motor skills as a result of damage to the developing brain.

What causes cerebral palsy?

The exact causes of most cases of CP are generally not known and it remains the subject of intensive research. Research across Australia is supported by organisations such as The Brain Foundation, a nationally registered charity dedicated to supporting world-class research into neurological disorders, disease and injuries. On their website, they note that while it was once thought that injury or low oxygen levels (asphyxia) during childbirth, and especially premature birth, were a common cause, some current research suggests the problems actually arise far earlier in the pregnancy. Possible causes include developmental abnormalities or brain injury to the foetus caused by poor circulation, asphyxia, trauma or infection. Other causes include illnesses in infancy such as meningitis. CP is neither a disease, nor is it hereditary.

What are the different types of CP?

Cerebral palsy cases are classified into four main types. While these classifications generally reflect the area of the brain affected, the extent of the damage and how the muscles function, no two people with CP will have exactly the same symptoms or disabilities.

The four main types are:

Spastic cerebral palsy – the most common type of CP is defined by stiffness or tightness of muscles and difficulty of movement.

Athetoid cerebral palsy – is defined by involuntary and uncontrolled movements.

Ataxic cerebral palsy – is defined by ataxia which describes a lack of balance and coordination. It often presents itself as shaky movements called tremors and challenges with the timing and control of body movements. This is the least common type of CP.

Mixed type cerebral palsy – where more than one type of motor pattern is present, but no one pattern predominates.

How does CP affect the body?

Normally,  muscle tone or tension lets us stand up and move our bodies easily. For people with CP, the messages from the brain that control that tone are distorted, or sent to the wrong muscle, resulting in symptoms described above. Cerebral palsy can be further categorised by the parts of the body affected:

Quadriplegia –  when all four limbs are affected and sometimes the muscles of the face and mouth.

Diplegia – when all four limbs are affected, but more so the legs than the arms.

Hemiplegia – when one side of the body is affected.

Paraplegia– when both legs, but neither arm is affected.

How is CP diagnosed?

As most people with cerebral palsy are born with the condition, the symptoms are usually observed early in infancy and almost always before the age of three.

Early signs can include muscle spasms, poor muscle control and lack of coordination. Infants often have early difficulties in feeding and are slow to reach developmental milestones such as learning to smile, sit up, roll over, crawl or walk.

As damage to the brain does not change, cerebral palsy doesn’t actually get worse over time. However, with growth and age, symptoms may change and the effects on the body become more obvious. Early diagnosis can help children achieve greater control over movement by learning and practising motor skills.

In both children and adults with CP, additional medical conditions and physical impairments are commonly present. The Cerebral Palsy Australia website notes that these can include:

  • visual impairment
  • hearing impairment
  • speech challenges – often also associated with difficulties chewing and swallowing
  • spatial perception problems
  • epilepsy
  • intellectual or learning disability.

What's life like with cerebral palsy?

The experience and the implications of life with cerebral palsy are different for every person. Many can and do live independent lives in the community, and most people with cerebral palsy have the ability and the potential to participate in the same life activities as others. While some may have only minor problems with motor skills, challenges including mobility and communication mean others may be fully dependent on care.

Living independently with Forsight

Living with CP certainly has its challenges for individuals, their families and carers, but at Forsight we know how high-needs people can be supported to live independently. Brooke has severe cerebral palsy, is deaf and has a heart condition. After a 10 year search to find the perfect home, she is now resident in a Forsight group home in Sydney’s Hill’s District and Brooke and her parents couldn’t be happier. Read Brooke’s story here.

Find out how Forsight works to minimise disadvantage while maximising opportunities for participation and enhanced quality of life here.


Brooke watering the plants at Azalea.

Information for this article is drawn from a number of online resources. While we take care to include accurate and up to date facts and figures, we always recommend that you undertake your own research into the medical conditions we might write about.

Some of our sources:




More blog posts

Ask Forsight

Quick Links