Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) falls, as the name implies, on a spectrum. Some people go their whole lives largely unaffected by FASD, while others need lifelong assistance with daily tasks. While FASD can be tricky to diagnose, it’s important to remember that there is so much hope for children with FASD!
What Causes FASD
FASD occurs when a developing fetus is exposed to alcohol in utero. When a mother consumes alcohol while pregnant, alcohol can make its way to the developing fetus through the umbilical cord. Neurons in the developing fetus are very sensitive and the alcohol that floats around in the blood stream when an expectant mother drinks can damage the fetus’s developing brain.
There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to conceive. Exposure to alcohol can cause problems for a developing baby at any stage of pregnancy, including the 4 to 6 weeks before a woman even knows she is pregnant. With this is mind, brain development takes place throughout pregnancy and it’s never too late for an expectant mother to stop drinking and prevent more difficult outcomes.
The FASD Spectrum
Brain: The primary feature of FASD is brain damage. How this manifests can vary greatly from person to person. Brain damage can present as trouble with learning, difficulty with communication, seizures, cerebellar hypoplasia (trouble with coordinated movement and balance), and difficulty with memory.
Physical: FASD can also present through physical characteristics. The physical characteristics of FASD can include being below the 10th percentile for height and weight, craniofacial abnormalities (smooth philtrum, thin vermillion, short palpebral fissure length) these features are often more exaggerated the more alcohol the child was exposed to. It’s important to note that the presence of facial characteristics associated with FASD are not a representation of the amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy, but rather, a specific window during fetal development in which alcohol was consumed. The absence of these physical characteristics does not mean that a child was not exposed to alcohol during pregnancy.
Developmental: For many children who are prenatally exposed to alcohol, their developmental age does not match their chronological age. Often, their developmental age is half of their chronological age.
There is no cure for FASD, it is an invisible, permeant disability. While the damage that FASD causes to the brain is permanent, there is so much hope for children! Families often find the most success when they try to manage symptoms. It’s helpful to view the behaviors that are symptomatic of FASD as brain-based. Children need accommodations that acknowledge this so that they have the support needed to reach their potential and be successful.
While FASD lasts a lifetime, research shows that early intervention treatment can improve a child’s development! Treatment can include medication, behavioral and education therapies, parent training, and more. It’s important to remember that no one treatment is right for every child.
Learn more about parenting a child with FASD by taking a Families Are Forever class.
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*Please consult your medical provider for more information and specific local resources in your area.