Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning. Often, a person with an FASD has a mix of these problems.

When a woman consumes alcohol while pregnant, her fetus is exposed directly to alcohol through her bloodstream. Alcohol can interfere with the growth and development of all fetal body systems; however, the developing central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) is especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol. These effects, which can vary from mild to severe, may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with lifelong implications. There is no cure, but early and appropriate supports can make a positive impact and improve outcomes for individuals with FASD.

FASD affects individuals from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

FASDs refer to a collection of diagnoses that represent the range of effects that can happen to a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These conditions can affect each person in different ways and can range from mild to severe.

A person with an FASD might have:

  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty with attention
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty in school (especially with math)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech and language delay
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Small head size
  • Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (this ridge is called the philtrum)

Cause of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

FASDs can happen only when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol. The alcohol crosses the placenta and enters the baby’s blood where it can damage the developing brain and other organs leading to an FASD. FASDs are 100% preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy.

Diagnoses

Diagnosing FASDs can be hard because there is no medical test, like a blood test, for these conditions. And other disorders, such as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and Williams syndrome, have some symptoms like FAS.

To diagnose FASDs, doctors look for:

  • Prenatal alcohol exposure; although confirmation is not required to make a diagnosis
  • Central nervous system problems (e.g., small head size, problems with attention and hyperactivity, poor coordination)
  • Lower-than-average height, weight, or both
  • Abnormal facial features (e.g., smooth ridge between nose and upper lip)

Treatment

Early interventions may be able to lessen its impact and prevent secondary disabilities.

Many types of treatments are available for individuals with FASD:

  • medical care/specialists (for example, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, mental health care, etc.)
  • medication to help lessen some of the symptoms of FASD
  • Behavioral and educational therapy
  • parent training
  • alternative approaches (auditory training, creative art therapy, meditation, etc.)

An individual with FASD can be assisted by special programs with their learning and behavior. Such assistance can enable a person with FASD to maximize their independence and achievements.

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