Isabella Cocco is energetic and full of life, like most children her age. However, as she gets older, the 12-year-old Oakville resident is finding it hard to fit in. She was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which affects her learning, growth and development. Her birth mother’s decision to drink alcohol during her pregnancy has left her with physical and behavioural issues she’ll have to live with for the rest of her life.
Her adopted mother Vicki Cocco describes how difficult it is explaining to Isabella why she isn’t making friends as easily as others. Although she’s physically like other pre-teens, Cocco said mentally, she isn’t like other 12 year olds. “Unfortunately, kids with FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) don’t have many friends so that has been a constant struggle for parents like us to see,” said the Halton Catholic District School Board teacher.
Cocco, who has lived in Oakville all her life, is sharing her daughter’s story in hopes of educating others about FASD, which has no cure, but is fully preventable. As part of International FASD Awareness Day on Sept. 9, Cocco wants to draw attention to the need to prevent FASD and open the discussion on how the community can better understand those living with the disorder.
The 44-year-old said when she and her husband first laid eyes on Isabella 10 years ago in the Ukraine, they saw the signs of FAS. Isabella had wide-set and narrow eyes, facial abnormalities common of a child who was exposed to alcohol prenatally. Cocco said it didn’t deter them from the adoption process, but rather motivated them to provide a safe and loving home for her. “We decided to go ahead and give her the opportunity here in Canada she wouldn’t otherwise have in the Ukraine,” said Cocco.
The family’s biggest challenge continues to be helping others understand Isabella’s disability. There are just some concepts she’ll never be able to understand or learn, said Cocco. Learning and remembering, understanding and following directions, controlling emotions and communicating and socializing are among the effects of FASD. Physically, a child with FASD could have slowed growth and heart, kidney or bone problems as well.
Cocco said despite the challenges, children who have FASD have the sweetest of hearts.
“They will give their hearts and beyond,” she said. “They want you to love them back and be treated as any other child would be treated.”
Isabella is growing and thriving to the best of her disabilities, she continued. “She’s going into Grade 7 this year and she’s coming to my school, which she is super excited about,” said Cocco. She’s cautioning pregnant women to take care of themselves and their babies by avoiding alcohol. “Don’t drink. Not even a sip of alcohol,” she said. “This is a lifelong disability and you’re doing so much damage to a child.”
Halton FASD will be hosting a community event at the Art Gallery of Burlington on Lakeshore Road on Sept. 9 from 3:30-5:30 p.m. to celebrate International FASD Awareness Day.