Tuesday, October 20, 2009

GOAL Intern Attends FASD Conference

One drink is one too many if you’re wondering if your unborn child might be effected by your having an alcoholic beverage while pregnant. Speakers from the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Research and Training Institute and the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Programs of the PA Department of Health stressed this point in a seminar on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD: Optimizing Outcomes for Individuals and Families by Recognizing Underlying Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and Tailoring Interventions for Success) they held in September. The workshop introduced the term FASD and what is meant by the term, alcohols effects on the developing brain and the need for a correct FASD diagnosis. Also stressed was that one drink is one drink no matter what alcohol it is made from. Hard liquor, beer, wine, one glass of any of them is one drink and any of them are potentially dangerous to the developing child. The need for this seminar became more obvious throughout the day as we were introduced to more and more information regarding the effects of alcohol exposure to unborn children (prenatal exposure).

FASD is the term used to describe a range of effects that can happen to a child with prenatal alcohol exposure. The effects range from mild to severe, may be mental, physical, behavioral with/without learning disabilities, and may be life long. Studies have demonstrated that several areas of the developing brain can be affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. These are areas that deal with learning, memory, fear, emotion, motor activity, communication within the brain itself and processing information, to name but a few. Prenatal alcohol exposure may result in a smaller sized brain as well as smaller stature than other people of the same age. There are characteristic facial features that, like all of the disorders, can vary from apparent to virtually inapparent: a thin upper lip, smooth groove between nose and upper lip (indistinct philtrum) and short eye slits (palpebral fissures). An FASD diagnosis takes into consideration all to the above, growth deficiency, central nervous system abnormalities, characteristic facial features and the mother drinking alcohol with the child in the womb (although this last point is not necessary for diagnosis).

People living with an FASD have many strengths. These include being helpful, determined, friendly, likable, and they can have unique insights. Unfortunately a person with an FASD has difficulty learning and interacting in society so trained professional assistance may be needed throughout life. This is a very expensive proposition with costs estimated at 1 million dollars to raise a child with an FASD to 30 years of age. Often, individuals with an FASD look “normal” and have average or above average intelligence but fail with typical educational approaches. For instance, they’re often verbal, say they know what needs to be done but they don’t follow through. They have trouble following instructions with multiple parts, have trouble recalling information or using it appropriately in a given situation, or misinterpret anothers actions, words or body movements. You can see that these problems could combine and lead to an individual with an FASD thinking they were “stupid” or “inadequate” when compared to their friends. This is not the case, with the proper support people with an FASD can function well, and potentially independently, in life. Proper care benefits the individual, the family and the community so an accurate diagnosis is imperative.

Another thing stressed at the seminar was that frequently a woman doesn’t know she’s pregnant until after the first trimester. If she has had a drink, the damage to the fetus may already have been done. No woman is harming her unborn child on purpose. We as a society need to remember not to condemn her but rather to encourage her not to drink if pregnant and to get the correct diagnosis for the child if the need arises. We need to encourage women of childbearing age to abstain from drinking alcohol if they might get pregnant. Husbands can provide support for their wives by abstaining from alcohol themselves and turning down invitations where alcohol may be served. Friends too can encourage friends in not drinking during, or before, a pregnancy, and by not drinking or not offering alcohol.

There is only one way of having a child with FAS and that is through the mother drinking alcohol while she is pregnant. This spectrum of disorders is entirely preventable and armed with the information that one drink may be one too many I think it’s our duty to spread the word and help eliminate this potentially devastating problem.

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