What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

looking at FASD through a magnifying glassThe term “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder” (FASD) refers to a range of disorders that are caused by being exposed to alcohol before birth. FASD includes specific conditions such as:

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
  • partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)
  • Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
  • Alcohol Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

Because FASD is a spectrum,
no two people will be affected alike.

Sometimes the effects of FASD are more visible or obvious (e.g. having distinctive facial features, physical differences, impaired sight or hearing, or a developmental disability). Other times the effects of FASD aren’t obvious at all (e.g. sometimes having trouble understanding instructions). This can make it difficult for people with less-recognizable types of FASD to get diagnosed and treated.

What causes FASD?

The only cause of FASD is exposure to alcohol before birth. While there is no known cure, FASD can be prevented by avoiding alcohol completely during pregnancy.
Learn more.

Challenges and symptoms

The effects of FASD are different for each person, but there are some symptoms that are common. People with FASD may have particular difficulty with:

  • Learning. Attention, memory, and communication skills can all be affected by FASD. People with FASD may also have trouble understanding spoken instructions, especially if they are given quickly.
  • Behaviour. Young people with FASD often get mistakenly labelled “bad” or “defiant” because they act in ways that seem inappropriate. In fact, impulsive actions and problems with judgment (for example, trusting someone who is taking advantage of them) are common features of FASD.
  • Understanding how rules work. Kids and teens with FASD often have trouble understanding that rules that apply in one situation apply in other situations, too. For example, a girl with FASD who is told not to ride her bike on the sidewalk near her house may not understand that it’s also not OK to ride it on different sidewalks.
  • Making friends. Young people with FASD may have a harder time marking friends because they often find it difficult to understand the unspoken rules of appropriate social behaviour. People with FASD sometimes seem rude because they might talk too loudly, act too friendly, or invade other peoples’ personal space.
  • Feeling overwhelmed. People with FASD often feel overstimulated by noise, lights, and activity, which can lead to outbursts.
  • Managing day-to-day life. Day-to-day life skills such as keeping up with schoolwork, eating properly, and waking up on time can be difficult for someone with FASD. People with FASD often need support from others to do things that come pretty easily to people who don’t have FASD.

No one asks for FASD, and it can be very difficult for people to cope, especially when few people really understand what FASD is like. It is important to treat all people with FASD with respect and understanding.

Long-term consequences

Kids and teens with FASD, especially if they have never had their condition diagnosed or are not getting enough support, may experience long-term consequences of their disorder that make their lives more challenging.

These are called ‘secondary disabilities,’ and include things like:

  • Trouble with school, such as being suspended, being expelled, or dropping out
  • Being arrested or going to jail
  • Substance abuse or addiction

While secondary disabilities are common, they can be prevented. People with FASD need good support from the people in their lives—including friends, family members, employers, and professionals such as social workers or doctors—to live the best life they can.

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Last Reviewed August 2012 by the Kids Help Phone Counselling Team

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