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Special Needs

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term for the range of harm that is caused by alcohol use during pregnancy. It includes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), partial FAS (pFAS), and Alcohol Related Neurodevelopment Disorder (ARND). FASD is preventable, but not curable. Early diagnosis and intervention can make a difference. Children exposed prenatally to alcohol, who do not show the characteristic physical/external or facial characteristics of FAS, may suffer from equally severe brain damage.

The following are common characteristics of FASD:

  • Facial dysmorphology - the characteristic facial features include small eye openings, flat mid-face, thin upper lip, flattened ridges between base of nose and upper lip

  • Low birth weight, failure to thrive, small size, small head circumference, and ongoing slow growth

  • Disturbed sleep, irritability, persistent restlessness

  • Infants may be floppy or too rigid because of poor muscle tone

  • Failure to develop routine patterns of behaviour

  • Excessively “busy” toddlers/preschoolers

  • Hyperactivity

  • Inconsistent behaviours

  • Impulsive

  • Poor memory

  • Unable to relate cause and effect

  • Unable to comprehend danger

  • Easily over-stimulated, sensitive to sound, lights and being touched

  • Highly tactile (likes to touch things)

  • Discrepancy between good expressive and poor receptive language (is less capable than he looks)

  • Information processing problems, problems sequencing and making choices

  • Difficulty with transition

  • Difficulty reading non-verbal cues, poor social judgment

  • Responds better one-on-one

  • Impaired motor skills (e.g., clumsy, poor hand-eye coordination)

  • May have physical birth defects


The most sensitive time for brain development is the first trimester; before many women know they are pregnant. Alcohol use, some medications and drugs used during pregnancy can cause similar learning and behaviour problems. Some genetic conditions and acquired brain injury also look similar to FASD. Care needs to be taken when discussing a possible referral for FASD diagnosis, so as not to stigmatize the mother.

Having concerns about a child's development?

Having difficulty coping? Need some advice?

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