What is FASD?

FASD is a brain injury that can occur when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol. It’s a lifelong disorder with effects that include physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities. These can vary from mild to severe.

FASD is the leading known cause of preventable developmental disability in Canada. The number of people who have FASD is not known in Canada nor anywhere else in the world. This is because FASD is difficult to diagnose and also because it often goes undiagnosed.

However, based on a study conducted n 2018, an estimated 3% of children in Toronto have FASD which translates to 1.1 Million people in Canada. More recent studies from the US and other Western European countries of first grade students estimate that between 2 to 5% have FASD.

What are the signs and symptoms of FASD?

Each unborn baby will be affected by alcohol differently. This means that each person affected by FASD will have their own unique set of challenges and strengths.

FASD is often called an invisible disorder because the majority of people with it have no outward signs of disability. Their learning and behavioural challenges are often mistaken for other disorders or problems.

People with FASD may have an IQ ranging from low to high, so IQ isn’t an indicator of FASD.

Some babies are born with facial features that are characteristic of FASD. These features only occur when a fetus is affected by alcohol at days 17-22 in pregnancy. Only a small number of people with FASD will have these features. The features include:

  • thin upper lip
  • little or no groove or ridge between the nose and upper lip
  • small eyes or shorter distance between one corner of the eye to the other

For all individuals with FASD, there will be different degrees of brain damage. Signs of this may include problems with:

  • learning
  • memory
  • attention
  • language
  • social skills
  • motor skills
  • controlling behaviour
  • reasoning and judgement
  • academics like math and reading

Someone with FASD may also experience physical impairments, such as problems with their:

  • vision
  • kidney
  • hearing
  • heart and bones

In everyday life, problems with behaviours may look like:

  • being impulsive
  • acting out from frustration
  • not understanding consequences
  • being unfocused and easily distracted
  • difficulties with keeping up with classroom learning
  • forgetting how to do something they’ve done before
  • a hard time with handling money or learning how to tell time

How is FASD diagnosed?

Diagnosing FASD can be difficult. This is because there’s no single or simple test that can cover the wide range of signs and symptoms.

FASD should be diagnosed by a team of health professionals, which will include:

  • a physician
  • a psychologist
  • a social worker
  • an occupational therapist
  • a speech and language specialist

They will gather a lot of information and do tests. This will determine if a person has FASD and what their functional weaknesses and strengths are.

A diagnosis is helpful so that people can get relevant and targeted services and supports, including financial support where available.

It can also be comforting for individuals and their families to know:

  • what’s behind the behaviour and feelings
  • that the parents or caregivers haven’t done anything wrong

An early diagnosis followed by appropriate interventions and support help to minimize the disabilities associated with FASD.

A study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that the overall burden and costs associated with FASD in Canada in 2013 was approximately $1.8 billion. The study used the most conservative assumptions, which means that the true costs are likely much higher. Another study indicated that it has been estimated to cost the Canadian economy $6.2 billion annually.

FASD has a devastating and life-long impact on individuals across Ontario. Many adults affected by FASD cannot live independently, secure and maintain employment, and are more likely to experience psycho-social and behavioural problems that increase their risk of being in conflict with the law and/or correctional facilities.

From the Canadian Public Health website and the Ontario FASD Provincial Roundtable Report 2015