Adverse Childhood Experiences, Associated Stressors and Comorbidities in Children and Youth with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder across the Child Protection and Justice Settings in Western Australia

Grace Kuen Yee Tan, Martyn Symons, James Fitzpatrick, Sophia G Connor, Donna Cross, Carmela Pestell




Individuals with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are at risk of having adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), especially those with child protection or justice system involvement. The complex relationship between FASD and psychosocial vulnerabilities in the affected individual is an important clinical risk factor for comorbidity. This study (1) explored the ACEs and associated stressors in individuals with FASD; (2) compared the ACEs profiles of those who had been involved with the child protection system only, justice system only, both or neither; (3) examined the relationship between ACEs and comorbid conditions such as mood and neurodevelopmental disorders.


Data were collected retrospectively via file review from diagnostic clinics in Western Australia. Life adversity was coded using a standardised ACEs questionnaire. 211 participants (71.6% males) with FASD with a mean age of 11.12 (range = 2-21) were included in the total sample.


Exposure to drinking/substance misuse at home (70.1%) and domestic violence (51.7%) were the two most common ACEs across the total sample. In the entire cohort, 39.3% had four or more ACEs. Additional stressors reported were involvement with child protection system (69.7%), disengagement from school (43.1%), trouble with the law (40.3%), transiency (19.0%), documented victims of bullying (12.3%), traumatic brain injury (9.0%) and homelessness (5.2%).

Further, individuals who had been involved with both the child protection and justice system were four to eleven times more likely than those without any involvement to report parental drinking/substance misuse at home, parental incarceration, exposure to domestic violence and emotional/physical neglect. Higher rates of life adversity in this clinical population were associated with an increased number of comorbidities, p <.001. Specifically, those with FASD who had comorbidities such as attachment disorder (p =.001), substance use disorder (p =.006), and PTSD (p <.001) also reported higher ACEs score.


ACEs were common in this clinical population, particularly those who had been involved with both the child protection and justice system. Increased ACEs in this clinical population were associated with increased comorbidities. This highlights that prevention, intervention and early diagnosis of FASD are important for at risk children to reduce the negative effects of ACEs

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