Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a part of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and is also referred to as Fetal Alcohol Effects. However, FAS is the clinical diagnosis term for any one on the spectrum. So for the purposes of this paper, it will be referred to as such. FAS is one of the leading causes of preventable birth defects and developmental delays (Graefe, 2003). It is a form of brain injury caused by alcohol usage by the mother during pregnancy, and is more prevalent in our world than many people are aware of. 9 out of every 1000 births are FAS births (Knowledge Network 2009), and as many as 1 in 4 births may have had alcohol exposure, but no noticeable effects. There is no association between paternal alcohol consumption and birth outcome (Saskatchewan Institute on Prevention of Handicaps, 2000). Contributing factors to the cause of FAS include malnutrition, other drug usage, already having a child with FAS, and having a history of substance abuse. It is not genetic or inherited (Graefe, 2003).
The effects of FAS show themselves in many ways: physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Depending on where the child is on the spectrum, they may have facial abnormalities, or they may not. There is no complete diagnosis for FAS – how the child is affected is mostly dependent on what time during fetal development the mother drank and how much alcohol was consumed. The impact of the alcohol on the fetus also depends on the pattern of consumption (regular vs. binge) as well as the genetic makeup and tolerance of the mother and the fetus (SIPH, 2000). Alcohol changes the way the brain processes and responds, therefore a child who has FAS will not respond or process in the same way as someone who does not. There is no safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy, and there is no cure for FAS.
Diagnosis of FAS often goes unnoticed, especially if the effects are not visible, and many children aren’t diagnosed until they reach school-age if they are diagnosed at all. According to the Saskatchewan Institute of Handicap Prevention, 1 out of every 100 children born is suffering from some sort of Fetal Alcohol Effects (2000). It can be incredibly frustrating for an FAS affected individual to go without a diagnosis, because this means that they automatically get labeled as stupid, or a problem. Their peers and caregivers can, without proper knowledge of FAS, assume that they are acting up deliberately, when in fact it is that their brain just can’t process that their behaviour is unacceptable (Knowledge Network, 2009). Early diagnosis is possible by a medical doctor, but only with parental consent. Once that is obtained, the child is given a physical exam and a thorough history is taken. It is possible for FAS to be diagnosed without knowledge of the mother’s alcohol consumption, as long as all other characteristics are present (SIPH, 2000). Early diagnosis assists teachers, caregivers, and parents to know what to expect and plan accordingly. It also allows the possibility for secondary disabilities, which will be addressed later in the paper, to be prevented (SIPH, 2000).
Facial abnormalities in an FAS child include a small eye opening, flat thin upper lip, little or no groove between nose and lip, short nose, flat mid face, and minor ear abnormalities. Other physical characteristics of FAS include small head size at birth, structural abnormalities in the brain, poor fine motor skills, poor hand eye coordination, poor gait when walking, hearing loss not related to injury or illness, low birth weight, weight loss not due to poor nutrition, and low weight to height rate (SIPH, 2000).