General information about FASD and its effects.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a general term that describes the effects that can occur in a person as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure. These effects can include learning disabilities and lifelong physical, mental, and behavioural difficulties.
Most people with FASD are not visibly different; you usually can’t see FASD. Depending on the amount and the timing of alcohol exposure, a minority of infants may develop certain facial features, and some will have growth deficiencies. But these effects are quite rare and have little impact on day-to-day function.
Alcohol exposure during pregnancy results in deep changes to the developing brain. These changes may not be noticed until the child has difficulties at school or at home. These can include problems communicating or paying attention, motor and sensory problems, memory issues, and a difficulty learning from consequences. As a person grows, they also have a higher risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
Life-long damage to the brain is the most common and serious result of drinking during pregnancy. The safest choice for a woman who is pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, is not to drink alcohol at all.
Some people believe that FASD is associated with certain social, ethnic or cultural backgrounds, but this is not true. The majority of Canadian women drink alcohol. In a 2004 Canadian Addictions survey, 76.8% of women over 15 years of age reported drinking alcohol within the previous year. Approximately one half of all pregnancies are unplanned. The highest rates of unintended pregnancy occur in women aged 15 – 19 years of age, which is also a population at increased risk for binge drinking.
There are currently no confirmed statistics on the number of people in Canada who have FASD, but it is considered to be the most common known cause of developmental disability in the western world.
Unlike most other birth defects, the diagnosis of FASD is not simple. Medical signs are difficult to recognize in newborns, infants and young children. Diagnosis can be delayed or missed entirely, as most of the damage caused by alcohol use during pregnancy isn’t noticed until problems arise. Many families are reluctant to seek a confirmed diagnosis due to the stigma of addiction.
Because alcohol effects brain development in different ways, no two people with FASD will have the same challenges. Some of the more common challenges include:
- Difficulties with judging, planning, delaying gratification, organizing, understanding consequences.
- Impulsivity and poor memory.
- Can be highly verbal, but lack comprehension skills.
- Impaired balance and coordination.
- Sensitivity to touch, heat, and light.
If these challenges are not properly understood and addressed, people with FASD are at increased risk of early school failure, involvement with the law, family disruption and homelessness.
Our understanding of FASD is in a period of rapid expansion and change. We are beginning to understand the extent of the global impact of this lifelong disability. Research, and the answers it may provide, is critical for moving this field forward, changing the way we view this brain based disability and lessening its impact on individuals, families and society.