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Cerebral palsy and autism

In some cases, autism may co-occur with cerebral palsy, meaning the affected child will need a personalized treatment plan that best suits their needs.

Did you know?

About 70% of cerebral palsy cases result from a birth injury. Was your child one of them?

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What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), also known as just autism, is an umbrella term for a group of complex brain development disorders.

Unlike cerebral palsy, which mostly affects a child’s motor functioning, autism affects the normal development of the brain in areas such as social interaction, problem-solving and communication.

One to two percent of American children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. An estimated seven percent of children with cerebral palsy have co-occurring autism.

Autism is characterized by varying degrees of difficulty related to social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. A child with a co-occurring condition will require a treatment and therapy plan that is best suited for their individual needs.

Causes and risk factors

Autism is a complex disorder that can be caused by an array of factors. ASDs have no single known cause, but there are at least three aspects that researchers agree contribute to the development of autism, including:

  • Genetics
  • Environmental factors
  • Maternal illness during pregnancy


There are several biological differences in children with ASDs compared to children who do not have autism. Some of these genes can affect brain development and the ways in which brain cells communicate. Some genetic problems appear to be inherited, while others can occur spontaneously.

Due to the relationship between genetics and autism, parents who have one child with autism have an increased risk that their next child will also have an ASD. Additionally, if you have two children with autism, the chances that your third child will have autism increase to about 35%.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors have recently been recognized as a potential cause of autism. Researchers are currently investigating the connection between things such as viral infections and air pollutants and the subsequent development of autism.

Maternal conditions

There are various maternal conditions or illnesses that have been tied to autism in children. These include diabetes, hypertension and obesity during pregnancy. Additionally, a mother’s use of drugs or alcohol while pregnant has been linked as a potential cause of autism in children.

Risk factors for developing autism

Autism can affect individuals of every gender, race and socioeconomic status. However, there are certain aspects that can increase the likelihood that a child will develop an ASD.

Some risk factors that increase the chances of developing an ASD are:

  • Family history – Families who have one child or more with an ASD have an increased risk of having a second or third child with the disorder.
  • A child’s sex – Males are four times more likely to develop an ASD than females.
  • The parent’s age – Children born to older parents have a higher chance of developing an ASD.
  • A premature birth – Babies born before 26 weeks have an increased risk of developing an ASD.

Types of autism spectrum disorders

Individuals with an ASD have different ways of learning, paying attention and reacting to sensations and situations. The comprehension and learning capabilities of individuals with an ASD can vary from being extremely gifted in one field to severely challenged in others.

The five general types of ASDs are:

  • Autistic Disorder
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder
  • Rett Syndrome
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Autistic Disorder

Autistic disorder is a brain development disorder that is often present during early childhood. This type of ASD is characterized by difficulty communicating and forming relationships with others, as well as trouble grasping language and abstract concepts.

Signs of autistic disorder include:

  • Failure to respond to his or her name, or not hearing people speaking to them
  • Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression
  • Resists cuddling or holding and seems to prefer playing alone
  • Delayed speech and language development
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm – may use a "singsong voice" or robot-like speech
  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
  • Being fascinated by details of an object, such as the wheels of a toy car, but doesn’t understand the “big picture” of the subject

Asperger’s Syndrome

Also referred to as Asperger’s disorder, Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that involves a delay in the development of many basic skills. While Asperger’s syndrome is similar to autistic disorder, there are a few distinct differences.

Children with Asperger’s syndrome are typically higher functioning than those with autism, and they usually have normal intelligence and language development.

Signs of Asperger’s syndrome include:

  • Slow development of social skills
  • Eccentric or repetitive behaviors, such as hand wringing or finger twisting
  • Unusual preoccupations or rituals
  • Limited range of interest
  • Poor coordination
  • Exceptional skills or talents, such as in music, art or math

Pervasive Development Disorder

Individuals who meet some, but not all, of the criteria for autistic disorder and Asperger’s syndrome may be diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, or PDD. Children with PDD usually have fewer and milder symptoms of autistic behavior and development. The symptoms of PDD mostly cause challenges in regards to social interaction and communication.

Signs of Pervasive Development Disorder include:

  • Difficulty with verbal communication and understanding spoken language
  • Challenges exhibiting nonverbal gestures, such as hand motions and facial expressions
  • Difficulty with social interaction, relating to others and their surroundings
  • Repetitive body movements or patterns of behavior, such as spinning or head banging
  • Temper tantrums
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Trouble sleeping or staying asleep
  • Difficulty adjusting to changes in routine or familiar surroundings

Rett Syndrome

Rett syndrome is a rare neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls, however it is possible in boys as well. This condition can lead to severe impairments that affect nearly every aspect of a child’s life. Rett syndrome can hinder a child’s ability to speak, walk, eat and even breathe easily on their own. A distinct symptom associated with this syndrome is constant, repetitive hand movements.

Signs of Rett syndrome include:

  • A slowing of head growth between 6 and 18 months of age
  • Loss of muscle tone
  • Habitually wringing or rubbing hands together
  • Deteriorating language skills
  • Development of extreme social anxiety or withdrawing from others
  • A jerky, stiff-legged walk
  • Uncoordinated breathing
  • Seizures

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

Childhood disintegrative disorder, or Heller’s syndrome, is a rare condition characterized by a gradual decrease in development. Children with PDD usually show signs of a typical development up until the age of 3 or 4. Then, over usually a few months, children lose language, motor, social and other skills that they have already acquired. For example, a child who previously spoke in phrases of a few words will gradually or abruptly lose the ability to communicate altogether. 

Signs of Childhood Disintegrative Disorder include:

  • Delay or regression of spoken language
  • Impairment in nonverbal behaviors
  • Inability to start or maintain conversations
  • Lack of bowel or bladder control
  • Loss of motor skills
  • Problems forming relationships with other children or family members
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The link between autism and cerebral palsy

The connection between autism and cerebral palsy is not exactly direct – however, because of the similarities within developmental disorders, it is common for autism and cerebral palsy to co-occur.

Cerebral palsy is the result of brain damage that occurs before, during or shortly after birth. Autism is also a brain development disorder, but it tends to progress after age two or three when a child’s language and communication skills begin to show an obvious delay.

Due to both cerebral palsy and autism involving some kind of umbrella diagnosis of brain damage, children with CP can also display symptoms of autism. Both conditions have varying degrees of severity, which can make it difficult to form a clear diagnosis of co-existing autism and cerebral palsy during the early childhood years.

Treatment for autism and cerebral palsy

The best way to determine if a child has both cerebral palsy and autism is by seeking an evaluation from a team of specialists experienced in the way that these conditions can co-exist.

If it is determined that a child has autism and cerebral palsy, there are various treatment options available to ensure that they are able to live life to the fullest, despite their diagnosis. A specific treatment plan will depend on the type of cerebral palsy and the type of autism a child has.

A treatment program will be put together by trained medical professionals who will examine a child’s mobility and cognitive abilities and determine the best course of action for their future.

Common treatment methods for co-existing autism and cerebral palsy are:

  • Physical therapy – This form of therapy can help improve coordination, balance and posture among children with CP and autism.
  • Speech therapy – Speech therapy can help articulation, language, vocabulary development and word comprehension.
  • Occupational therapy – Occupational therapy is used to help children with everyday activities and functions, such as eating, dressing, and using the bathroom.
  • Medications – There are medications available to help reduce common side-effects associated with cerebral palsy and autism, such as seizures.
  • Surgery – Surgery is used to relieve stiff muscles and improve neural functioning, which can help a child with a co-occurring disorder such as autism.

If you suspect that your child’s co-existing autism and cerebral palsy were the result of medical negligence, contact us today for a free case review.

Reviewed by:Katie Lavender, RN

Registered Nurse

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Katie Lavender has over 8 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in postpartum mother/baby care. With hands-on experience in Labor and Delivery and a role as a Community Educator for newborn care, Katie is a staunch advocate for patient rights and education. As a Medical Reviewer, she is committed to ensuring accurate and trustworthy patient information.

Cerebral Palsy Guide was founded upon the goal of educating families about cerebral palsy, raising awareness, and providing support for children, parents, and caregivers affected by the condition. Our easy-to-use website offers simple, straightforward information that provides families with medical and legal solutions. We are devoted to helping parents and children access the tools they need to live a life full of happiness

  1. Autism Science Foundation. (n.d.). Quick facts about autism. Retrieved July 12, 2024, from https://autismsciencefoundation.org/quick-facts-about-autism/
  2. Autism Speaks. (n.d.). What is autism? Retrieved July 12, 2024, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-is-autism
  3. Chen, Q., et al. (2024, April 9). Association of cerebral palsy with autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children: A large-scale nationwide population-based study. BMJ Paediatrics Open, 8(1), e002343. Retrieved July 12, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjpo-2023-002343
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. (2024, February). Autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved July 12, 2024, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd
  5. Sampson, D. (2023, July 30). New genetic clues uncovered in largest study of families with autism. Retrieved July 12, 2024, from https://www.uclahealth.org/news/release/new-genetic-clues-uncovered-largest-study-families-with