Through No Fault of Their Own

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A look into the world of children living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Last month, some of our social workers attended a seminar on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD, put on by the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (MOFAS).

You may be asking, what is it FASD? Or, how does it affect children and what can I do about it?

A Disability, Not a Diagnosis

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a development disability in prenatal infants caused by the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. This disability involves permanent brain damage during infant development that lowers a child’s functionality. FASD affects everyone differently and may include physical, cognitive, behavioral, or learning disabilities.

It’s important to know that FASD is a disability, not a diagnosis, and can include a wide array of subtypes, including:

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrom
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS),
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND),
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
  • Fetal alcohol effect (FAE).

There is no known “safe amount” of alcohol a mother can consume during pregnancy to limit the chances of FASD. Most governments and health professionals around the world agree that the best way to prevent FASD in a child is to abstain from alcohol completely throughout a pregnancy.

A common misconception is that drinking alcohol while pregnant is safer than if the mother were using severe “street” drugs (cocaine, heroin, etc). In actuality, alcohol is a teratogen, or a substance that, when a fetus is exposed to it, directly impedes growth and development. For this reason, alcohol is highly dangerous in terms of the damage it can do.

“Of all the substances of abuse, including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus, resulting in life-long, permanent disorders of memory function, impulse control, and judgment.” – IOM Report to Congress, dated 1996

The Facts

Here are some statistics about pregnancy and alcohol consumption during pregnancy:

  • Almost half of today’s pregnancies are unplanned.
  • 20% of pregnant women continue to drink after they are pregnant.
  • In MN, about 12% of women consume 5 or more drinks per month during pregnancy and around 5% binge drink (4 or more drinks at a time) during their pregnancy.
  • It is estimated that at least 1 percent of children in the U.S have FAS or other alcohol-related birth defects.

Knowing the Symptoms

In the past, many cases of FASD were diagnosed based on a child’s physical features. Children with FASD will occasionally develop identifying physical features that are most prominent during the ages of 8-10 years of age, such as: a thin upper lip, smooth philtrum (the vertical groove in the middle area of the upper lip), and palpebral fissures (the corners of the eyes).

However, after more research in field, studies have shown that only 10% of children with FASD develop physical signs. Because FASD involves brain damage, most of the symptoms are mental or behavioral. This hasn’t always been easy to detect either, as many of the symptoms of FASD include related symptoms of other mental health diagnoses (ADD, ADHD, Autism, ODD, and more). This has led to a common misdiagnosis of FASD.

Some of the typically diagnosed mental and behavioral symptoms, or “red flags”, of children living with FASD include:

  • Immature and poor social behavior
  • Adaptive behaviors which are lower than a child’s IQ indicates
  • Children who are easily distracted, hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive
  • An inability to connect actions with consequences
  • Children who are seemingly not affected by past punishments
  • Truancy and school difficulties
  • Inconsistent answers to questions
  • Previous involvement with foster care, adoptive homes, or the justice system

Although these symptoms aren’t “conclusive” in determining if a child has FASD, they do provide a good road map for professionals who are diagnosing children.

Lifelong Challenges

As mentioned before, FASD is permanent brain damage that will affect a child the rest of their life. Through no fault of their own, these children will struggle with their behavioral and cognitive disadvantages every day. Often, these children are ostracized by their peers because of their inability to mentally “keep up” with their physical age. They need adult assistance and support, typically for their entire life.

Early diagnosis is crucial for children with FASD. Recognizing the symptoms, developing systems to help your child succeed, and maintain a support group is essential for raising a child with FASD.

Often, parents will struggle to understand why their child isn’t learning as fast or improving from their actions. This is especially true for parents raising a child with FASD alongside other children who don’t have the disability. “Why don’t they realize this is wrong?” or “Why do they continue to misbehave after they’ve been told many times?”

The honest answer is… they have a disability. These children cannot function in the same way as other children with FASD, and thus, can’t be held to the same learning and behavioral standards. What works for one child probably doesn’t work for another.

What Can You Do?

As mentioned before, early diagnosis is very important. Knowing how to work with children who have FASD and putting systems in place early with help prevent years of frustration, confusion, and lack of progress.

For families living in Minnesota, MOFAS is a fantastic source of information, support, and diagnosis. Located in Saint Paul, MOFAS has a team of highly trained professionals specializing in FASD and other alcohol-related disorders. They also have a wealth of resources for parents, families, and pregnant women.

You can also Contact Us to talk with one of our social workers about FASD and how to work with children affected by it.

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