By Lyn Becker
September is National Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Month in which we pause to recognize a serious affliction that affects more than 40,000 newborns and hundreds of thousands of children, adolescents, and adults ever year.
This devastating affliction is caused by only one thing – a pregnant woman drinking alcohol anytime between conception and birth.
The fetus can be affected regardless of the timing of the drinking, the type of alcohol, or the amount of alcohol.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American Academy of Pediatrics, US Center for Disease Control, and the US Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services all support “No alcohol between conception and birth.” No alcohol during breastfeeding as well.
While alcohol can cause physical birth defects of the newborn’s face, limbs, and internal organs, it is the brain damage that is the most debilitating because it cannot be repaired, there are no known effective treatments (yet), and it lasts through the victim’s lifetime.
When full blown Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is identified at birth through visible defects, human service and healthcare agencies can begin early interventions to improve the child’s overall outcome.
But FASD usually has no observable physical defects. So it goes un-identified and the child goes through life falling through the cracks.
Most go on to develop serious mental health disorders such as depression, autism, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality trait disorders, ADHD which are secondary to the brain damage done by alcohol.
Consider the following effects on children, adolescents, and adults with FASD.
- They have difficulty with learning and memory
- They have difficulty with attention
- They may have speech and language delays early in life
- They have poor reasoning and judgment
- They have poor impulse control
- They may be hyperactive
- They may have low IQ, although about 80 percent have average to above average IQ
- They lack social skills appropriate to their chronological ages
- They usually go on to develop various mental health disorders and/or substance abuse disorders
- They go on to experience serious difficulties in school, with employment, and at least 60 percent will be incarcerated at some point(s) throughout their lives.
These children, adolescents, and adults bear no responsibility for these ill effects. Most of them are not capable of responding to typical mental health and/or substance abuse treatment.
The fetus can be affected regardless of the timing of the drinking, the type of alcohol, or the amount of alcohol. Most are either never served or underserved by the human services and mental health/substance abuse systems.
Statistics show that about one-third of these individuals live with their birth parents, one-third live with their adoptive parents, and one-third are in the foster care system.
FASD is the leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental disabilities. More than $6 billion is spent nationally to treat the identified victims of FASD.
Since thousands of children and adults who have FASD have never been identified as such, we can assume the actual cost well exceeds this figure.
We know that awareness and understanding of FASD remains low, even among government policymakers, physicians, mental health/substance abuse professionals, the criminal justice system, and human service organizations.
All of these constituencies should be fervently working to prevent, identify, and appropriately intervene in FASD.
When it comes to f FASD, it is critical that we do not judge, blame or ridicule the birth mothers of these individuals. Many times a woman drinks alcohol with absolutely no knowledge that she is pregnant, especially within the first two months of pregnancy.
In the past, women were often not advised by their physicians to stop drinking while pregnant. Even physicians were not aware of the dangers of drinking alcohol between conception and birth. It is a low percentage of women who will intentionally drink alcohol knowing that they are pregnant and that alcohol can cause serious birth defects.
Please do not engage in the blame game towards the birth mothers or physicians. Instead put your energy into future efforts to prevent, identify, and intervene in the best interests of these precious children, adolescents, and adults.
Please learn more about this devastating disorder that impacts the lives of countless individuals, their families, and their communities. And please spread the word, “When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, her baby does too.”
Lyn Becker is a FAE/FASD advocate and activist. She resides in York.