What is known:
- Neglect is associated with neurodevelopmental outcomes.
- Prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with neurological deficits.
What this paper adds:
- Prenatal alcohol appears to act independently of neglect.
- Neglect does not appear to make the effects of prenatal alcohol worse.
Disentangling the relative developmental impact of prenatal alcohol exposure from postnatal neglect is clinically valuable for informing future service provision. In this study, developmental outcomes across groups are compared in a ‘natural experiment’.
Clinical data from 99 persons with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder(FASD) diagnoses were audited. Developmental outcomes (diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD; social and communication disorder, SCD; or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, ASD; Short Sensory Profile, SSP; Vineland II Adaptive Behaviour Scales) were compared across two exposure groups: prenatal alcohol only; and mixed prenatal alcohol and neglect.
ADHD (74%) and ASD/SCD (68%) were common, with no significant difference between groups (ADHD, p = 0.924; ASD, p = 0.742). Vineland age equivalence scores were lower than chronological age (11.1 years – prenatal alcohol only, and 12.7 years – neglect) across all domains, especially receptive language (3.7 years for both groups). Age equivalence did not differ between groups, with the exception of domestic daily living (neglect: 7.7 years vs. prenatal alcohol only: 5.8 years, p = 0.027). A probable/definite difference on SSP was more common in the prenatal alcohol only (96% vs. 67%, p = 0.006). For the individual subscales of SSP, there were no significant differences by neglect category.
Postnatal neglect in this group did not make the developmental outcome any worse, suggesting that prenatal alcohol influences these outcomes independently. Professionals who support families looking after a child with both FASD and a history of neglect should be aware that the behavioral difficulties are likely to be related to prenatal alcohol exposure and not necessarily reflective of parenting quality.