Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD, is often described as the invisible disability. With September being FASD Awareness month, it seems like a fitting time to discuss what FASD is, some of the ways it affects children and families, and the impact it has on development, thereby hopefully making it visible.
What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?
FASD is the diagnostic term used to describe a range of neurodevelopmental impairments that may occur as a result of exposure to alcohol before birth. FASD is often called the ‘invisible disorder’ because visible traits don’t appear at birth. It is a lifelong disorder with an array of both primary and secondary symptoms.
There is little data available on how many children experience FASD in Australia, however international studies suggest FASD affects roughly 2% of the population. This neurodevelopmental disorder crosses all socio-economic demographics: it can occur in any part of Australia where alcohol is consumed. Sadly, FASD is often misdiagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Conduct Disorder, as many symptoms of these conditions overlap with FASD.
FASD is classified as a spectrum-based disorder, and consequently there is a wide range of symptoms and it can affect each child differently. It has the potential to impact different parts of the brain, therefore the functional impairment may be seen across the neurodevelopmental domains, including:
- brain structure and neurology
- motor skills
- academic achievement
- executive function, impulse control and hyperactivity
- adaptive behaviour, social skills, and social communication.
Executive functioning skills are everyday life skills, like planning, impulse control and working memory. When the brain has a deficit in this area every task becomes a challenge.—Parent of a child with FASD
The role of the educator
Educators and services are in a unique position to support those who have a diagnosis, or to support children and families if they are in the process of seeking a diagnosis. While it is not the role of the educator to offer a diagnosis, it is important to note the existence of FASD and to develop an awareness of the lifelong impact it can have on children and their development.
Don’t wait for things to change. If you have a concern then talk to your child’s teacher. Early intervention can make all the difference to your child’s future. —Parent of a child with FASD Strategies to assist young children with FASD
It is important to remember that not all children are the same, and therefore assistance strategies may require adjustments to suit the individual needs of each child. This is why early intervention is so important—when accessed, it is able to offer specifically designed strategies for children with FASD. For example, some children with FASD may have difficulty remembering new information. This can be supported by using visuals to remind children, using consistent language, working closely with the family to use the same strategies, playing games to promote memory, and implementing consistent rituals and routines.
Your child’s teachers can be your greatest ally. Be open and honest with them, help them understand your child. Building three-way communication between teacher, child and parents supports everyone.—Parent of a child with FASD
A new resource
Due to the complexity of FASD and how it is acquired, it can often be a delicate space for early childhood educators to navigate. To help address this, Early Childhood Australia is producing a resource in conjunction with NOFASD, which aims to support educators to understand the complexities of FASD in the early childhood context. This resource guide—Through Different Eyes: Understanding young children living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder—is a framework to assist educators by providing strategies for working with families and young children who may be living with FASD. By registering your interest here, you will be the first to know when the resource becomes available.
I explained to my child how her brain works differently and that I would always be there to help her. I gave her strategies and encouraged resilience. We are working towards a positive future together.—Parent of a child with FASD
ECA suggests looking at these resources to support an understanding of working with young children and FASD:
- A Guide to Executive Function: Harvard Centre on the Developing Child
- FASD Hub Australia
- Australian Institute of Family Studies: Supporting children living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: Practice principles
- ECA Inclusion Resources
Inclusive pedagogy from a child’s perspective – Research in Practice Series
By Marilyn Fleer
Longstanding thinking in the area of inclusion argues against focusing on an actual physical disability, such as visual impairment. Rather, attention should be focused on what educators actually do and what conditions are created for children to give them the greatest access to learning and development. Purchase a copy on the ECA Shop.