Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

As the embryo is continuing to grow throughout pregnancy, all stages are critical. Therefore, there is no safe time to consume alcohol, and no safe amount to drink, for a woman who is pregnant.

Effects of Fetal Alcohol

An infant born with the effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol might have a small head circumference, small size at birth, and might possibly have several facial features related to fetal alcohol syndrome.

Although the presence of facial features related to fetal alcohol are used to diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome, these are only present if the mother drank during around the 20th day of pregnancy, when the facial features were developing. If drinking was done earlier or later in the pregnancy, the child could still strongly be affected, though will not be able to get the full FAS diagnosis.

Also, if a birth mother only drank on or around the 20th day of pregnancy, it is possible that the child have all of the facial features required for a full diagnosis, though they may not be effected as strongly in the areas of behavior, social, or cognitive development.

While facial features “normalize” with age, mental, emotional, social, and behavioral issues often become more apparent with age. For this reason, studies done on alcohol effects in infants, toddlers, or preschoolers may not portray accurately the number of children effected, or the severity of damage done by prenatal alcohol exposure.

People effected by prenatal alcohol exposure can have significant challenges with learning, especially in abstract concepts (money, possession, personal boundaries, social rules, comprehension, language), hyperactivity or challenges with impulse control, poor judgment, poor coordination, difficulty with memory, and difficulty controlling their emotions.

How to Diagnose Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Some terms that people with fetal alcohol are diagnosed with are:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • Fetal alcohol effects (FAE)
  • Static Encephalopathy (Alcohol Exposure Unknown)
  • Alcohol Related Neurodevelopment Disorder (ARND)

The specialist who diagnoses children or adults with fetal alcohol will specifically measure development in the following four areas:

Growth Deficiency – as prenatal alcohol exposure can effect growth, height or weight below the 10th percentile, either at birth, or later in life, can be indicative of such exposure. A small head size (microcephaly) can also be the result of prenatal alcohol exposure, and is also used as a diagnostic tool.

FAS Features – certain abnormalities of the eyes, nose, upper lip, and space between the nose and mouth are specifically measured by trained specialists to determine the presence of FAS facial features.

Central Nervous System Damage – the specialists will measure cognitive development, physical development, social development, and the development of language in order to determine significant deviation from typical abilities. A scattered intelligence, where a child is of typical or advanced ability in some things, but significantly delayed in others (often in the same areas), is indicative of prenatal alcohol exposure.

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure – it is useful to be able to confirm prenatal alcohol exposure for diagnosis, however, in the case of adoption, or denial on the part of the birth parent, alcohol exposure is often unknown.

Outlook on Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

As Diane Malbin discusses in her book, Trying Differently Rather Than Trying Harder (Oregon Dept. of Human Services), although prenatal alcohol is a lifelong disability, there is still hope. Early diagnosis, a nurturing and accepting environment, unconditional friendships, life mentorship; and special education can help to improve the quality of life these individuals experience.