Cerebral Palsy: Uncovering Its History

The prevalence of cerebral palsy (CP) is significantly lower than the most common intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CP affects one in 323 children. However, this statistic reflects an analysis of 8-year-old children with mild to severe forms of CP. Unfortunately, the history of CP tends to become lost amid newer treatment approaches and greater research into the disorder’s causes.

Ironically, improving today’s treatment measures relies on a careful understanding of the history of CP, which may have begun in ancient times. Rather than exclusively devoting your resources to tomorrow’s opportunities, the history of this intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) can be empowering. Use this information to encourage those with CP, their family members, friends and caregivers to persevere and overcome the challenges inherent in this condition.

Was There an Ancient Account of CP?

The modern understanding of CP began in the mid-1800s with Dr. William John Little, explains Care Hospitals. Dr. Little had suffered from polio, and he devoted his career to researching and treating other disabilities. In 1861, he authored the first account of this condition in medical journals, and he referred to the disability as Little’s disease. However, that name would not last for long.

In 1889, Sir William Osler coined the term cerebral palsy when referring to the condition, which literally means brain paralysis. Over the years, researchers noticed that the disease did not appear to aggress beyond its typical signs and symptoms early in life. In general, most people with CP are diagnosed in the first few years of life, typically within reaching the age of 30 months, reports the CDC, but its origination may have roots much further in history than many realize.

In 1889, Sir William Osler coined the term cerebral palsy when referring to the condition, which literally means brain paralysis.

“The Corpus Hippocraticum is among the most notable medical works in existence. It has been the starting point for those in healthcare for centuries, and much of its information is devoted to traumas or developmental issues with the brain, head and nerves, asserts the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Although there is no verifiable proof of authorship, the text does describe developmental motor problems that are highly like modern descriptions of CP.

Unfortunately, limited medical knowledge of Hippocrates, by modern standards, would have made it impossible to distinguish between subdural injuries and actual developmental delays caused by a genetic problem. Thus, researchers and health professionals can only speculate that genetic causes of CP may have been around for generations earlier than their 1800 association.

Is Cerebral Palsy an Intellectual Disability?

On the surface, CP appears to be an intellectual disability. Those suffering from it may be incapable of expected motor movements or the ability to communicate effectively. Consequently, these individuals may lack social skills and fail to interact with others appropriately. Depending on the severity of symptoms, the physical ability to walk, stand or otherwise interact may be inhibited.

“Many [people with CP] have related intellectual disabilities,” such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affirms the CDC. While affected individuals may have decreased cognitive functioning, the level of intelligence and rational thought does not appear to be as dramatic in others with severe intellectual disabilities. However, each person with this condition may suffer from severe cognitive impairments. Unfortunately, the isolationistic barriers to healthy development may impede expected social norms.

In other words, the developmental impact of CP may lead others to believe that a person with this disability suffers from severe cognitive problems. The true problems with CP are developmental, not necessarily intellectual.

Why Is the History of Cerebral Palsy Important?

There is a dark history for the past generations of people with physical or cognitive disabilities. Asylums, out-of-way facilities, imprisonment, religious persecution and death have been part of this narrative for centuries. While modern medicine has taught society that disabilities are not the proverbial “work of the devil,” the history of CP will always retain its importance.

The history of CP teaches the world that long-held beliefs about a person’s physical impact on life may not necessarily reflect poor decisions. CP is caused by a genetic malformation or mutation in utero, which can occur without any biological explanation. Per Medline Plus, children with CP may exhibit physical problems early in life, but they can overcome their struggles and interact appropriately.

Through medications, braces, new technologies such as robotic legs, and physical, occupational and speech therapy, those with CP may achieve a greater standard of mobility than previously thought possible. Meanwhile, new developments in treating co-occurring IDDs, such as ASD, are helping to further this cause. Ultimately, children, teens and adults with CP can achieve the same level of consciousness and intelligence seen in otherwise healthy individuals.

In other words, history teaches behavioral therapists and direct support professionals (DSPs) an important lesson: Patience is an essential component to effectively mitigating and overcoming the challenges of CP.

What Does It Mean to You?

Imagine you suddenly lost your ability to control your arms and legs. Even if you could control your limbs occasionally, you would likely feel abandoned, sad or hopeless. Now, imagine what that must feel like to someone who has always known these challenges. This is what individuals with CP face.

People with CP who receive services from your organization can feel alone and may be physically incapable of expressing themselves. Instead of focusing on treating the condition’s symptoms, you need to acknowledge that a real person may feel trapped inside of a paralyzed body. They can hear what you say. They can understand what you need and want.

In working with them, customize any treatment approaches to reflect the cognitive and physical abilities of each person. In other words, do not always revert to working with them as you would an infant or toddler. People with CP have been around throughout history, and you can leverage this fact to help them feel less alone, less afraid and hopeful.

Part 1: What You Need to Know About Cerebral Palsy


Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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