Cerebral palsy describes a group of disorders that affects the way a person moves. Cerebral palsy occurs when there is damage to the brain when it is developing, and it affects a child’s ability to control their muscles. It is the most common form of physical disability in childhood. A child with cerebral palsy may face challenges with muscle weakness, stiffness, slowness and/or shakiness of movement. Balance, coordination and walking can be challenging.
Every child with cerebral palsy will show different strengths and challenges. For example, some kids may only have limitations with motor control on one side of their body, while others will have challenges controlling both sides. If muscles in the face, mouth, and throat are impacted by cerebral palsy, kids can experience challenges with talking, eating and drinking. They may find speech challenging, which means they might have different ways of communicating through augmentative alternative communication (AAC; e.g. using computer technology, speech generating devices, iPads or pictures).
Kids with cerebral palsy may have challenges across other areas, for example, they may have hearing or vision difficulties. Children may have difficulties with their vision and it may impact their ability to see things clearly, their eye movements may be slow or less controlled, and they may not pick up moving objects as quickly as other children. Some kids with cerebral palsy may have intellectual disability or learning disorders, which impact the way they think, learn and understand. Some kids may have spasms where their arm/leg/hand might suddenly ”fly” in a direction or in response to a startle. It is important to get to know each child with cerebral palsy, so you know how best to include them in dance.
About 1/3 of kids with cerebral palsy also have epilepsy, which means that they have re-occurring seizures. Just like cerebral palsy, epilepsy includes many different types and it affects people in different ways. For some kids, a seizure will mean that they stare blankly or look as if they are daydreaming for a period of time; for other kids, a seizure may involve stiffness or jerking movements. Some kids will benefit from medication, which means that seizures may be rare. Parents know their children best – if a child in your class has epilepsy, ask the parents about how you can recognise a seizure and what to do if this happens in class. The About Me medical summary can be completed by parents and the child’s doctor to ensure you are aware of any medical problems and what you need to do to ensure the child is safely included in your dance class.
Each child with cerebral palsy will show different areas of strengths and challenges. The most common area of challenge involves motor skills and mobility. See the Dance Teacher Resources for Mobility and Motor. Kids with cerebral palsy may also have challenges in the areas of Hearing, Vision, Cognition, Communication, Attention, Learning and Memory, and Behaviour. See the Dance Teacher Resources for these areas.
Sometimes people may assume that kids with physical disabilities have difficulties with thinking and understanding. This is often not the case. Similarly, just because a child faces challenges with talking or communicating does not mean they are not smart or that they have difficulties with thinking or learning. As a teacher, learning how to communicate most effectively with a child with talking or communication challenges is important so that they have every opportunity to participate and have fun. Teachers should speak with the child’s parents or guardians if they are unsure about how much they say is being understood. Giving time is key. When using a communication device kids need thinking time, processing time, typing time and so on.