Ataxic cerebral palsy is a developmental disorder that affects balance and coordination. Children with the disorder may have difficulty walking steadily or performing precise movements, such as writing.

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Ataxic cerebral palsy occurs from damage to the cerebellum during infancy or early childhood. The cerebellum is the balance center of the brain.

“Ataxic” means without order or lack of coordination. “Cerebral” means involving the brain. “Palsy” means weakness in or challenges when using the muscles.

Ataxic cerebral palsy is the rarest form of cerebral palsy, a group of neurological disorders that affect muscle movement and control.

Here’s what you need to know about ataxic cerebral palsy, including diagnosis, symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Most children with cerebral palsy receive a diagnosis by 2 years old. However, children with mild symptoms may not receive a diagnosis until ages 4 or 5 years.

Doctors may suspect cerebral palsy if a child shows signs of developmental delays related to their movement or coordination. For example, a parent may notice their baby is slow to learn to crawl or walk, or their child has uncoordinated movements or difficulty grasping objects.

To make a diagnosis, healthcare professionals evaluate the child’s health history and track their growth and development over time during regular visits.

If your pediatrician sees signs of developmental delays, they may refer your child to a specialist called a pediatric neurologist. The specialist reviews developmental milestones involving:

  • movements or coordination
  • muscle tone
  • motor control
  • strength
  • reflexes
  • posture
  • face and eye movements
  • ability to roll over, sit, crawl, or walk based on the child’s age

Doctors also order tests to assess the child’s overall health, rule out other disorders, and look for signs of neurological damage. Tests may include:

A healthcare professional may diagnose ataxic cerebral palsy if they observe signs of cerebellar ataxia. This includes problems with muscle coordination and movements performed with abnormal force, rhythm, or accuracy.

Early signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy in infants may include being slower to roll over, sit, crawl, or walk compared with usual milestone ages.

Children with ataxic cerebral palsy specifically have trouble with:

  • coordination
  • balance
  • depth perception

One of the most common symptoms is walking unsteadily with the feet spread apart because of impaired balance. The walking may appear shaky or jerky.

Children may also have difficulty performing actions with their hands and arms, such as reaching for a book or buttoning a shirt.

Other symptoms of ataxic cerebral palsy in children may include:

  • unsteady movements
  • shaking (tremors) or involuntary movements
  • low muscular tone
  • difficulty with quick or precise movements
  • poor coordination
  • slow eye movements
  • speech impairments, such as slurred speech or trouble articulating consonants
  • hearing and vision problems
  • delays in reaching motor skill milestones

Each of the four main types of cerebral palsy are movement disorders with slightly different characteristics.

Ataxic cerebral palsy is the rarest form of cerebral palsy. It affects 5–10% of people with the disorder. It involves problems with balance and coordination, including:

  • instability
  • imprecision
  • disorganized and jerky movements

Spastic cerebral palsy is the most common form of cerebral palsy, affecting about 80% of people with the disorder. The term “spasticity” refers to stiff muscles. People with this disorder have:

  • increased muscle tone
  • muscle stiffness
  • uncoordinated movements

The two other main types of cerebral palsy are:

  • dyskinetic cerebral palsy, which involves uncontrollable movements of the hands, arms, feet, and legs
  • mixed cerebral palsy, which is when someone has symptoms of more than one type of cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy occurs from atypical brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a child’s ability to control their muscles.

Ataxic cerebral palsy results from damage to a part of the brain called the cerebellum. The cerebellum controls balance and coordination.

Causes of cerebral palsy may include:

  • infections or other medical challenges during pregnancy
  • a stroke that occurs while in the womb or after birth
  • severe, prolonged, or untreated jaundice
  • genetic disorders
  • complications during childbirth
  • being shaken as a baby
  • injury during early childhood, such as a car accident

Other factors that may increase the chance of cerebral palsy include:

About 85–90% of people with cerebral palsy are born with the condition. This is called congenital cerebral palsy.

A small percentage of people with cerebral palsy experience abnormal brain development or damage more than 28 days after birth. This is called acquired cerebral palsy. It’s often associated with head injury or an infection, such as meningitis.

In many cases, the specific cause of cerebral palsy is unknown.

Cerebral palsy has no known cure, but treatment can help children cope with uncoordinated movements and improve their quality of life as they grow and develop.

The earlier a child begins treatment, the better their chances of managing and overcoming developmental challenges.

If your child receives a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, a team of healthcare professionals will work with you to develop a treatment plan.

Treatments may include:

In the United States, early intervention and school-aged services are available for children with cerebral palsy through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

You can learn more about these services at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s cerebral palsy resources page.

Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition, but it doesn’t always cause severe disability.

Children with ataxic cerebral palsy typically have less severe motor dysfunction than children with other forms of cerebral palsy. However, they may have more severe cognitive challenges.

Some children have mild cerebral palsy that does not require assistive devices. Others may have only slight movement challenges, such as trouble walking. In fact, more than 50% of children with cerebral palsy can walk independently.

Children with milder forms of cerebral palsy have an average life expectancy. Children with more severe cerebral palsy may require assistive devices or lifelong care, but treatments can help improve their quality of life.

Additionally, cerebral palsy is not a progressive disorder. This means it doesn’t get worse over time.

Researchers are working hard to identify new causes and contributing factors, develop new treatments, and better understand why brain damage causes cerebral palsy. Promising research includes genetic studies, stem cell therapy, and neuroimaging.

Ataxic cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that can develop during infancy or early childhood. It occurs from damage to or developmental abnormalities in a part of the brain that controls balance and movement.

Children with the disorder typically have problems with balance and coordination, such as difficulty walking or performing precise movements.

Treatments can help children with cerebral palsy manage disabilities and live long, active, and fulfilling lives.

If you’re concerned your child is showing signs of developmental delays, a healthcare professional can answer questions and assess their symptoms and underlying causes.