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Understanding FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders)

FASD is often termed an "invisible physical handicapping condition."  The effects of prenatal alcohol and other drug exposure on the developing brain are the most debilitating aspects of this condition. These effects are invisible. The only indicators of this physical disability are found in learning and other behavioral characteristics.

Parents and professionals often find standard techniques are ineffective. Many people experience increasing frustration over time when childrens' behaviors are unresponsive to traditional interventions. Until recently, there has been little information linking the "organicity," or neurological differences associated with FASD, with behaviors.

Information linking brain function with behaviors increases understanding, reduces frustration, and contributes to successful outcomes. Knowledge about FASD and organicity provides a way to shift perceptions: Children may be understood as having a problem rather than being the problem.

    As a result, rethinking and reframing interpretations of behaviors contributes to developing effective and appropriate strategies, "trying differently rather than trying harder." Successful strategies support children, and contribute to the well-being of parents and professionals.

FASCETS supports the development of a family-centered, community-based, multidisciplinary continuum of care. This collaborative design has been found to be effective in enhancing communication among parents and professionals for their mutual benefit.

Primary Characteristics

The following neurodevelopmental characteristics are commonly associated with FASD. No one or two is necessarily diagnostically significant; many overlap characteristics of other diagnoses, e.g. ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, and others. Typical primary characteristics in children, adolescents, and adults include:
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty storing and retrieving information
  • Inconsistent performance ("on" and "off") days
  • Impulsivity, distractibility, disorganization
  • Ability to repeat instructions, but inability to put them into action ("talk the talk but don't walk the walk")
  • Difficulty with abstractions, such as math, money management, time concepts
  • Cognitive processing deficits (may think more slowly)
  • Slow auditory pace (may only understand every third word of normally paced conversation)
  • Developmental lags (may act younger than chronological age)
  • Inability to predict outcomes or understand consequences

Common Strengths

Many people with FASD have strengths which mask their cognitive challenges.
  • Highly verbal
  • Bright in some areas
  • Artistic, musical, mechanical
  • Athletic
  • Friendly, outgoing, affectionate
  • Determined, persistent
  • Willing
  • Helpful
  • Generous
  • Good with younger children

Preventable Secondary Characteristics

In the absence of identification, people with FASD often experience chronic frustration. Over time, patterns of defensive behaviors commonly develop. These characteristics are believed to be preventable with appropriate supports.
  • Fatigue, tantrums
  • Irritability, frustration, anger, aggression
  • Fear, anxiety, avoidance, withdrawal
  • Shut down, lying, running away
  • Trouble at home, school, and community
  • Legal trouble
  • Drug / Alcohol abuse
  • Mental health problems (depression, self injury, suicidal tendencies)


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Last update March 2010