What Is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is an umbrella term which describes the various birth defects which can occur in people whose mothers drink alcohol during their pregnancy.

The four areas of criteria for full diagnosis are growth deficiency, central nervous system damage, prenatal alcohol exposure and facial features. There are lots of children who are affected by FASD but do not meet the full diagnostic criteria and experience major difficulties.

Any alcohol, no matter how little that is drunk by an expectant mother, will cross into the placenta and can possibly result in the baby having defects at birth. These can include behavioural and learning disabilities plus physical and mental defects. The child will have these problems for life.

Throughout the term of a pregnancy the fetal brain develops and in children with FASD their brains have suffered permanent and irreversible damage. The child’s behaviour and thought processes can be differ greatly to a child whose mother has not consumed alcohol during her pregnancy.

In the Western world, fetal alcohol exposure is the largest known cause of intellectual disability. In the UK, according to international studies, 1 in every 100 children is estimated to be born with FASD. This figure is greater than the combined number of children born with cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, spina bifida and cystic fibrosis in a year.

We live in a culture that has a huge problem with our young people binge drinking on a regular basis. As this alcohol abuse has become more common then cases of FASD have increased too. It is a social problem with terrible consequences.

The life-long effects of FASD are often made worse by secondary disabilities in the individual’s adult years such as mental health issues, drug addictions and criminal activities.

Most people with FASD will need life-long help and support. Raising a child with this disorder is challenging and sometimes overwhelming.

Innovative approaches based on neurobehavioral strategies need to be used in teaching, helping and supporting children with FASD. The development of these teaching methods and strategies will address the problems caused from the damage to the central nervous system. Current research and studies show a link between the increased numbers of infants born with FASD and the large increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

The child’s other organs such as their heart, limbs, kidneys, eyes and ears can be damaged and cause future problems with their health as they grow up. The damage to the brain can mean they suffer from seizures and they are unable to sustain good sleeping patterns. It is vital that children with FASD go for medical check-ups regularly.

It is very difficult to diagnose FASD because its symptoms can also be found in other conditions and often the mother or family of the child can be in denial about the possible cause. However, getting a professional diagnosis is the most important step a family can make if they suspect that their child could be suffering from FASD. Do not try to diagnose FASD yourself! It would be a simple task if FASD could be diagnosed with a simple blood test but it is difficult to diagnose and takes brain experts, everyone from speech therapists to psychologists, to work out a diagnosis using a lot of special tests and professional knowledge. Sometimes a child suffering from FASD is mistakenly diagnosed with ADHD or Autism because the symptoms are similar (hyperactivity, being impulsive and also repetitively doing the same things). This is why diagnosis for FASD must be carried out by a professional psychologist with special training or experience of FASD.

Unfortunately there is no cure for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and it is sadly, a lifelong disability. Adults suffering from it have the same problems they suffered with as children. But with the appropriate help, support and professional guidance children suffering from FASD can learn to accept their disability and make the most of their lives in a positive way as they grow up.

By Eirian Hallinan