Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a medical diagnosis that describes the range of brain injuries, birth defects and developmental disabilities that can result when a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy.
We call FASD a ‘spectrum’ disorder because it crosses every sector of the population and affects different people in different ways. Each condition and its diagnosis is based on individual characteristics and features that may be physical, cognitive, or behavioural in nature. FASD is a lifelong condition with no cure.
Getting a diagnosis of FASD can be an important step in helping someone impacted by prenatal alcohol exposure to thrive. New Canadian guidelines published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) provide recommendations for diagnosing FASD. These guidelines present a desicion-making tool for trained, multidisciplinary teams to diagnose FASD as follows:
- FASD with sentinel facial features
- FASD without sentinel facial features
- At risk (for individuals who don't meet diagnostic criteria, but are still at risk of FASD)
Prior to the publication of these new guidelines, FASD was commonly referred to as an umbrella term for a range of diagnoses, including fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), and alcohol-related birth defects.
Obtaining a diagnosis of FASD has been shown to improve the life outcomes of individuals impacted by prenatal alcohol exposure, their families, caregivers and communities.
Impacts and effects
FASD affects individuals differently with a range of symptoms, some of which are readily visible, others of which are not. Common effects experienced by children and adults living with FASD include learning and memory difficulties, speech and language problems, impulsive behaviour, social difficulties, sensory challenges, motor skill and physical problems. Because of their disabilities, people who are affected by FASD may have special needs that last into adulthood; however, with support many go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives.
FASD is more common than many people realize: it is a leading preventable developmental disability in Canada. Conservative estimates suggest that FASD affects 9 in every 1,000 babies born in Canada. It is estimated that there are at least 300,000 Canadians and 46,000 Albertans living with FASD, and 15,000 in Calgary. 40% of Albertans report knowing someone with FASD or someone caring for an individual with FASD. Many will never be formally diagnosed.
Myths and facts
Myth #1 • FASD is readily apparent from a person’s looks
The Facts • Research has revealed there is only a short period during pregnancy when alcohol exposure affects facial development. The majority of people with FASD show no physical symptoms of disability. That’s why the broader range of disorders that occur with FASD are often called “invisible disabilities.”
Myth #2 • FASD occurs only when mothers are alcoholics or binge drinkers. Drinking in moderation during pregnancy is safe.
The Facts • There is no known safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy and there is no “safe time” to drink alcohol during pregnancy.
Myth #3 • Behaviour is a choice. People with FASD just need to try harder.
The Facts • Behaviours associated with FASD are symptoms of a brain-based disability. People who live with FASD need our understanding and support to be successful. With FASD it's not about trying harder... it's about trying differently.
Myth #4 • FASD affects children and adolescents. Adults don’t have it.
The Facts • FASD is a permanent, life-long disability. Rather than “outgrowing” FASD, many people face greater challenges as they age because their behaviour seems less socially appropriate.
Myth #5 • A father's alcohol consumption prior to conception can cause FASD.
The Facts • While this is not true, expectant fathers can play a key role in prevention by supporting their partners in the decision not to drink alcohol during pregnancy.