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.