Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a type of acquired brain injury that is caused when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy. A baby born with FASD can have life-long problems with learning, growth, behaviour, memory, language, communication and everyday living. They may also have birth defects and facial abnormalities.
FASD is the leading cause of non-genetic, developmental disability in Australia. Although FASD is completely preventable, there is no cure and it is a condition that a person has for life.
Most children with FASD show no visible signs and can often go undiagnosed but could have the following behavioural characteristics:
- Physical and emotional developmental delay
- Impaired speech and language development
- Learning problems, e.g. poor memory
- Difficulty controlling behaviour
FASD is a condition that is a result of parents either not being aware of the dangers of alcohol use when pregnant or planning a pregnancy, or not being supported to stay healthy and strong during pregnancy.
According to Louise Gray, executive officer of the National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) Australia , FASD is the most prevalent and preventable disability in the world. It does not discriminate based on ethnicity, creed, wealth or socioeconomic status.
Dr Doug Shelton, Paediatrician, Gold Coast Hospital & Health Service, has stated that FASD is much more common in Australia than what we think and is spread across every area of our society.
Drinking alcohol at any time during pregnancy - even before the pregnancy is confirmed -increases the risk of FASD, miscarriage, stillbirth, and perinatal death. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) states that alcohol is a 'teratogen' which means it is a known substance that causes birth defects.
When a pregnant woman drinks, alcohol moves through her body ('circulates') in the bloodstream, and also enters the baby's bloodstream via the placenta - in the same concentration. Because the baby is small and developing, it has little to no ability to metabolise the alcohol, which therefore affects the development of the baby's brain.
The level of harm caused by FASD is dependent on a range of factors, most predominantly the amount and frequency of alcohol consumed but also:
- Generational alcohol use by either parent
- Age of the mother
- Health of the mother (e.g. nutrition, mental health, tobacco and other drug use)
- Environmental factors (e.g. stress, exposure to violence, poverty)
There is no safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy and no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy.
After birth, the babies of alcohol dependent mothers can suffer withdrawal symptoms, including tremors, irritability and fits. FASD, on the other hand, is usually not noticed until the child reaches school age when behavioural and learning difficulties become more evident.
FASD in Australia
Not much accurate data on the prevalence of FASD in Australia is available but in the United States it is estimated that FASD affects roughly between two per cent and five per cent of the population. The prevalence may be as high as 12 per cent in some high-risk Indigenous communities, according to the Australian Medical Association (Aug 24, 2016).
The importance of diagnosis
Diagnosis of FASD is important so that we can understand the unique learning needs of the individual. Without diagnosis and appropriate intervention, people affected by a FASD may also develop secondary disabilities which can manifest over time. These include:
- Mental health problems
- Contact with the criminal justice system
- Incomplete education (suspension, expulsion or truancy)
- Inappropriate sexual behaviour
- Problems with parenting
- Unemployment and homelessness
- Alcohol and other drug use
Support & awareness
Positive outcomes can be achieved when an individual and their family are appropriately supported to understand the behaviour as a symptom of brain damage.
It is therefore vital that awareness of FASD grows. Knowing about FASD is not the same as understanding FASD. NOFASD believe the use of an "FASD lens" to develop strategies and support on an individual basis according to each client's presenting behaviours and strengths, is necessary to avoid making mistakes in case planning and case management for children or adults living with FASD and their caregivers.
A positive outlook
With the right support and early interventions, good outcomes across a range of life goals are more likely to be achieved.
A circle of collaboration between health professionals, the family, school and service providers ensures the best opportunities for people with FASD.
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Want to learn more about the effects of alcohol? Check out the Your Room selection of publications.