Special Needs

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of effects resulting from exposure to alcohol during pregnancy. If a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, this can cause facial abnormalities, growth deficiencies and hearing and vision impairments in the growing fetus. It can also affect learning, behaviour, sleep, social and cognitive skills and mental health concerns. The diagnosis of FASD requires a multidisciplinary team and involves a complex physical and neurodevelopmental assessment. For a diagnosis of FASD to be made, the individual must meet either of two sets of criteria: FASD with facial features or FASD without facial features.

Alcohol exposure does not have the same impact on every fetus and there are many factors that can affect the impact. It is important to remember that each baby is an individual and may be affected differently.
Though exact rates of FASD are not known and vary from community to community, it is estimated that approximately one in 100 Canadians have FASD. FASD crosses all races and socioeconomic boundaries. Although there is no known cure for FASD, it is preventable. With appropriate supports and services, the outcomes for an affected child are much improved. This is why early diagnosis and intervention is critical.

The following are common characteristics of children with FASD:


  • Low birth weight; failure to thrive; small size; small head circumference

  • Disturbed sleep; unpredictable sleep patterns/cycles

  • Often trembling and difficult to sooth; may cry a lot

  • Problems with bonding

  • Weak sucking reflex; little interest in food; feeding difficulties

  • Weak muscle tone

  • High susceptibility to illness

  • High sensitivity to sights, sounds and touch


  • Slow to acquire skills

  • Feeding and sleep problems

  • Poor motor co-ordination and poor fine and gross motor control

  • Short attention span

  • Difficulty following directions or doing as instructed

  • Hypersensitivity i.e. irritability, stiffness when held or touched, refusal to brush hair or teeth, over-reaction to injury

  • Easily distracted or hyperactive

  • Difficulty with changes and transitions; prefers routines

  • Receptive and expressive language delays

School Aged Children

  • Sleep difficulties

  • Difficulty processing received information

  • Difficulty with comprehension e.g. reading

  • Ongoing expressive and receptive language delays

  • Poor attention span; low impulse control

  • Difficulty keeping up as school demands become increasingly abstract

  • Consistent repetition needed to learn a skill or to transfer learning from one situation to another

  • Ongoing sensory difficulties which may lead to behaviour changes or challenges

  • In need of constant reminders


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. (Be sure to follow as directed instructions)

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.

Services and Information related to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

As  FASD can also affect learning, behaviour, sleep, social and intellectual skills, we suggest taking a look at these pages and the respective services and information related to them for more assistance and programmes available in these areas. 

Having more general concerns about a child's development?

Having difficulty coping? Need some advice?

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