Cerebral Palsy: And Other Effects of my Brain Injury #AtoZChallenge

Welcome to day three in the #AtoZChallenge. I am feeling a little off today, as my support worker canceled our appointment tomorrow and my husband will be home from work late this evening. For this reason, I’m feeling a little unmotivated to write. I hope that forcing myself to write today’s A to Z post anyway will help me snap out of the bad mood. Today, I am sharing about a disability that I have had since infancy, but that I didn’t know much about till a few years ago.

Like I mentioned on Monday, my autism diagnosis got taken away in 2016, because my then psychologist thought my having had a brain bleed as a baby precludes an autism diagnosis. It doesn’t, but it did help me gain some new perspective on my issues. Could I possibly be suffering from the effects of neonatal brain injury?

I asked my parents, starting with the obvious. I have left-sided weakness, affecting both my arm and leg, which I assumed was due to the brain bleed. I had heard of cerebral palsy and had figured out I might have this. I asked my father, but he didn’t answer my question. Possibly, he wasn’t told by the doctors, because my mobility impairment is relatively mild.

I did see a rehabilitation physician and had regular physical therapy until I was around eight. I also needed a cast on my left foot because my achilles tendon was at risk of becoming too short. Later, at age fifteen, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. This isn’t so uncommon that it alone warrants another diagnosis. However, coupled with all the other issues, I put two and two together.

Cerebral palsy, for those who don’t know, is basically a mobility impairment due to a brain injury acquired in utero, at birth or in the first year of life.

I finally went to my GP in 2017 to ask him, again focusing on my mobility impairment. This, after all, is the defining characteristic of cerebral palsy. I was just told I had acquired brain injury.

Still, in late 2018, I joined the national CP charity in my country. When I went to their conference in November, all puzzle pieces fell in place. Not only were my symptoms – not just the walking difficulties – characteristic of CP, but I met people with milder walking difficulties than mine who had been diagnosed as having CP.

There are five different levels of CP, depending on gross motor functioning (ability to walk or otherwise move around). People in level 1 and 2 can walk independently, though those in level 2 require some handheld mobility aids for long distances or on uneven ground. I would probably score as level 1 or maybe 2, but this motor functioning assessment is appropriate for children and adolescents only. There are also several different types of CP, depending on which limbs are affected and how. I probably have spastic hemiplegia, meaning CP affects one side of my body only.

Currently, I am not looking for an official CP diagnosis. I probably had one as a child, so digging up my old records may reveal it, but I’m not in a position to do so at this point. I also wonder what benefit I could gain from this. The support groups for CP on Facebook allow me in based on the facts of my brain injury and resulting mobility impairment. Besides, like my GP said in 2017, a physical or occupational therapist treating me for my brain injury would have to take into account the major disability of my blindness. Maybe, should I ever go into long-term care for the blind, I’ll be able to afford support for this.

A diagnosis of cerebral palsy requires mobility impairments, but a brain injury can have other effects. At the CP conference, the first presentation I attended was on overload. The same cognitive and affective difficulties that people who acquire a brain injury later in life can endure, can affect those with neonatal brain injury. In that sense, my psychologist may’ve been correct that my emotional and cognitive impairmetns are due to that.

CP Conference Last Saturday

So I attended the Netherlands’ national conference day on cerebral palsy on Saturday. Before I went, i was incredibly scared. Would I be able to connect to other people or would I be left on the sidelines all day? Would there be people willing to help me navigate the school building in which the conference was being organized? Would I arrive on time? But my main worry was related to my own diagnosis of cerebral palsy, or rather the lack thereof. You see, I was never told that I have CP by my parents and was too young to understand medical jargon by the time they stopped taking me to specialists. Maybe my parents didn’t even know, as doctors do not always clearly communicate and my parents were mostly looking for reassurance.

My GP also was a bit vague when I asked him last year, citing a probably relatively recent letter saying that I had acquired brain injury. Now I do happen to know that doctors disagree on whether brain injury acquired shortly after birth counts as ABI or a diagnosis of CP or the like should be made instead. So I’m a member of Facebook groups for both CP and ABI. However, ABI is a diagnosis regardless of symptoms and CP requires mobility impairments. I wonder therefore, are my mobility impairments severe enough to count?

I arrived at the school forty minutes before the doors were officially open, but someone took me to a chair anyway and gave me a cup of coffee. Soon, a man I’d been talking to via Facebook messenger arrived too and we sat and chatted some.

Gradually, other people arrived and it was soon time for the official opening speech. This was partly about Steptember, a movement challenge to collect money for research on CP.

Then, a neuropsychology professor spoke about the effects of movement and mental or physical effort on cognition in people with and without CP. It turns out that effort, whether that be mental or physical, strengthens brain connections to the frontal and parietal cortex, which are responsible for higher-order cognitive functions such as planning, organizing and impulse control. He also briefly touched on the effects of music, which can also help strengthen these connections. In short, moving and exerting ourselves as much as we can within the limits of our CP helps our cognitive functions. Of course, past age 30, these brain areas no longer grow and actually decline, but still exerting yourself enables you to learn more effectively regardless of your age.

After this, you could choose to follow a workshop session. The one I followed was on overload. This was a bit of a chaotic workshop, as the presenter allowed for questions while presenting. I am quite familiar with overload, as a person with autism, but I loved to explore it from a CP perspective. I mean, physically I do have some more limitations than those without CP. As a result, walking may give me energy, but it also costs me energy more so than it does non-disabled people. This was rather interesting, because I often tend to sometimes give everything and more of myself physically and other times I tend not to bother. Something the presenter said that really struck a chord was that mental overload can be counteracted by physical activity and vice versa.

In the afternoon, we could also pick a workshop to follow. The one I chose was on nutrition. A registered dietitian had developed nutritional guidelines for children and adults with CP. Topics that were discussed included underweight and overweight. The presenter said that, as a general rule, people with CP need fewer calories than those without CP. The reason is that, even though our movement costs more energy and hence burns more calories, we tend not to move as much.

Another topic that was discussed was swallowing difficulties. Did you know that up to 99% of people with CP, even those with mild CP, have swallowing issues? I didn’t. This was so validating, because I happen to have some rather significant swallowing issues.

Other topics of discussion included reflux, constipation and bone development. There is little research into these, as particularly constipation and osteoporosis are common within the general population anyway.

Overall, I loved this day. It was also very validating. Not only did no-one say I don’t look like someone with CP, but I actually met several people who are at least as mildly affecte as I am.

Confessions of a New Mummy