What is FASD?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term used to describe impacts on the brain and body of individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol. FASD is a lifelong disability. Individuals with FASD will experience some degree of challenges in their daily living, and need support with motor skills, physical health, learning, memory, attention, communication, emotional regulation, and social skills to reach their full potential. Each individual with FASD is unique and has areas of both strengths and challenges.

Depending on the amount and the timing of alcohol exposure, a minority of infants exposed will also develop a characteristic pattern of facial features, and some will have a growth deficiency. However, those effects are relatively rare and have little impact on day-to-day function.

Decades ago, the facial features of FASD received a lot of attention in the press. The presence or absence of facial features depends on whether alcohol was consumed in a very narrow window of time during pregnancy. It does NOT reflect the degree of brain disorder. The vast majority of people with FASD are not visibly different; you cannot see FASD. Although in a very small percentage of people the face may look different, the important fact is that in all individuals with FASD, the function of the brain is permanently affected.

No two people with FASD will have the same challenges due to the wide variation of alcohol effects on brain development. Individuals with FASD are at increased risk for mental health issues, school difficulty, addictions, and difficulties maintaining employment. Some of the more commonly seen challenges include:

  • Executive functioning – difficulty with judging, planning, delaying gratification, consequences, organization, impulsivity, memory
  • Communication – can be highly verbal, but lack comprehension skills both written and verbal
  • Neuromotor Defects – impaired balance and coordination

Some Notable Statistics

  • Based on the most current research, the estimated prevalence of FASD in the general Canadian population is 4%. However, rates of FASD are believed to be much higher in certain groups, including children in care and individuals involved in the justice system.
  • An estimated 160,000 Albertans are living with FASD. Each year, more than 500 Alberta babies are born with FASD.

Root causes of FASD

While prenatal alcohol exposure is the direct cause of FASD, the answer to “What is the cause of FASD?” isn’t so clear-cut.

The underlying factors that impel women to drink during pregnancy are numerous. They range from lack of information about the risks of drinking while pregnant, drinking prior to pregnancy recognition, and social pressures to drink to dependence on alcohol and untreated or unrecognized mental health problems.

Complex social and biological determinants consequences. These include genetics, poverty, poor nutrition, and lack of social support networks and personal autonomy. The risks for alcohol-exposed pregnancies are also associated with adverse life events, gender-based violence, trauma, stress and social isolation.

For more information on FASD please click here.


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