Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders is an overarching term to describe a wide range of effects which can occur to an individual whose mother consumed alcohol while pregnant.

When a woman drinks alcohol while pregnant, her unborn child is exposed to alcohol through the bloodstream. Alcohol can interfere with the growth and development of fetal body systems. The developing nervous system (brain and spinal cord) are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects.

Effects of alcohol during pregnancy can range from mild to severe depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and the frequency. Effects may include physical, mental and behavioral or learning disabilities. In some cases, effects can be lifelong.

FASD does not discriminate and affects people regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

There are three main categories which fall under Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

The most common type of FASD is ARND (Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorders). ARND is a category used for people who present with damage to the nervous system or confirmed prenatal alcohol exposure.

Partial FAS or pFAS is a category for individuals who present with most, but not all the facial features and growth deficits of FAS, including damage to the nervous system or confirmed prenatal alcohol exposure.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome FAS is the most visible and severe form of FASD. It is the leading cause of preventable developmental disabilities in the world. The diagnostic criteria are:

  • Height or weight below the 10th percentile
  • Confirmed or unconfirmed prenatal exposure to alcohol
  • Facial anomalies which include small, narrow eyes, smooth philtrum (area above upper lip has no vertical groove)
  • Thin upper lip
  • Damage to the central nervous system which can lead to cognitive, behavioral and other problems which can include: smaller than normal brain, problems with coordination, decreased IQ, developmental delays, attention deficit, hyperactivity, motor difficulties and seizures

Signs and Symptoms

While every individual’s signs and symptoms will vary to a degree, and individual with a diagnosis within the FASD spectrum will have some brain dysfunction due to prenatal alcohol exposure.

Signs and symptoms are reflective of the disabilities commonly observed among this population. They are broken into Primary and Secondary Disabilities. It should be noted that not all primary and secondary disabilities will be present in all individuals.

Primary Disabilities are those that most directly reflect the underlying nervous system damage. It can manifest in a wide range of difficulties such as: difficulty with abstract reasoning, organization, planning or understanding or recalling a sequence of events, connecting cause and effect relationships and/or regulating their own behaviors and emotions.

There are typical brain based primary disabilities which include:

  • Difficulty grasping and applying abstract concepts such as managing money and time
  • Inconsistent memory
  • Inability to filter out physical and emotional distractions
  • Low mental stamina
  • Slower than average cognitive and auditory processing
  • Poor judgement and impulsive behavior
  • Unable to see another person’s perspective
  • Resistant to change
  • Inability to predict outcomes (of their or other’s actions)
  • Inability to recognize social cues

A common characteristic of individuals with FASD is immaturity. As there are difficulties in areas of development such as language and language comprehension, social skills and often self-care, individuals with FASD do not measure up to societal norms and expectations.

Since most FASD symptoms are not outwardly visible except to the trained eye, behaviors and immaturity can be frustrating to those around them and to the individual with FASD.

Secondary Disabilities are not present at birth, occurring later in life and include:

  • Mental health problems
  • Difficulties in school including suspension or dropping out
  • Legal difficulties
  • Confinement which can include alcohol or drug treatment or being in jail
  • Unacceptable sexual behaviors
  • Poor academic performance
  • Employment difficulties
  • Dependent living

Treatment for FASD may be available depending on your location and includes:

  • Medical care, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and mental health care
  • Medication to reduce symptoms
  • Behavioral and educational therapy
  • Parental training

Assistance in these areas can enable a person with FASD to maximize their independence and accomplishments.