Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term describing individuals who have disabilities related to their mother consuming alcohol while she was pregnant with them. There are many reasons women drink, including during pregnancy, such as unplanned pregnancy, addiction, coping with trauma, or lack of support from her partner, friends or family. The effects of alcohol on a baby’s developing brain impact the person throughout their life, and can be helped or worsened by the person’s environment and experiences before and after birth.
Most people with FASD have an “invisible disability” because there are no physical symptoms. Some have facial characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), but this group is only the “tip of the iceberg” of people who have been exposed to alcohol in pregnancy.
FASD used to be considered an umbrella term, but this changed with the release of the 2015 Canadian guidelines for FASD diagnosis. FASD is now a diagnostic term, with or without sentinel facial features. People diagnosed with FASD have disabilities in multiple areas of brain functioning, and will benefit from community support around their unique needs.
People with FASD present with behavioural symptoms of their underlying disabilities, which vary from person to person. They might experience challenges with any or all of the following areas: attention, memory, language, motor skills, cognition, academic achievement, executive functioning (reasoning), or daily living skills. They may also struggle with depression or anxiety. No two people will be the same, and the way their challenges present will change as the person ages.
There is a common misconception that FASD is associated with a particular ethnic or cultural group of people. FASD is not a condition unique to Indigenous people. The fact is a majority of Canadian women drink alcohol. According to a 2004 Canadian Addictions survey, 76.8% of women over the age of 15 reported consuming alcohol during the previous 12-month period. Approximately half of all pregnancies are unintentional and the highest rates of unintended pregnancies occur in women aged 15 – 19, which is when there is an increased risk of binge drinking. FASD exists irrespective of ethnicity, nationality, culture or tradition.
We understand that many families are reluctant to seek a confirmed diagnosis because of the stigma attached to addiction, especially during pregnancy. The truth is, FASD is no one’s fault. There are many reasons why people drink, and we all need support to be healthy. Our approach is to see each person, whether they are a family member or the youth with FASD, as a person first. Each of us deserves to be treated with respect for his or her individuality. This is always foremost in all aspects of Through an Aboriginal Lens as we support youth who enter our program and their families to find healing, wholeness and hope for their future.