Myles Himmelreich says many people don’t understand the daily struggles for people living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or FASD.
“In school, it was: I was lazy. I wasn’t trying. I didn’t care. And then I would get detention — when in actuality what was happening was, I maybe was struggling with the sensory issues: it was too bright. It was too loud. There was too much going on,” he told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman.
Himmelreich was born with FASD. It’s a devastating diagnosis caused by the brain damage that occurs with prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Symptoms can include learning disabilities, speech delays and trouble regulating emotions. It can be difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms are similar to other developmental disabilities.
As a teenager, Himmelreich says he had the developmental capacity closer to that of a seven-year-old. But the school system and social structures around him, he says, expected him to behave the same as his peers without FASD.
“It would be like getting upset at a baby that isn’t walking and talking when they’re three months old because you’re looking at these kids that are four,” he said.
Himmelreich describes what it’s like to live with FASD in this animation
According to a 2018 report by the Canada FASD Research Network, an estimated 1.5 million Canadians have FASD. That’s about four per cent of the country’s population. For children in welfare or foster care, the prevalence could be as high as 11 per cent.
Conclusive data is hard to come by due to what the report characterizes as “methodological challenges and varied results” in the FASD studies that exist.
The report also said that despite a “common myth” that Indigenous populations experience a higher rate of FASD, there is no conclusive data to support the claim.
Dr. Ana Hanlon-Dearman, medical director at the Manitoba FASD centre and network in Winnipeg, says teachers are often the first to notice possible signs of FASD. But she told Dr. Goldman that it’s best to look for signs of FASD before school age, to better prepare parents as well as educators.
Without that diagnosis, many symptoms could be chalked up as “intentional behaviours” or a lack of discipline.
“We may see people apply terms like, you know, a person is struggling, and it seems intentional. But it really isn’t intentional. They really are just struggling to kind of make sense of what the environment is demanding of them,” she said.
Miles Himmelreich says that struggles in school are often made worse by the social challenges of children with FASD.
“The only thing you’ve been told is, you’re weird, you’re different and nobody wants to be your friend.”
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