Years ago, when working as a Child Welfare Investigator I was often confused about behaviours of the clients. Fortunately, I was able to attend a wonderful workshop in Lethbridge where I learned about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Research and concepts have evolved since then but today I received a request from one of my Medicine Hat readers for a review of this syndrome so I will provide the basics.
The only way a person can be diagnosed or experience Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is if the mother was drinking alcohol while pregnant. There is no other way for this diagnosis to be possible. Usually, this drinking can occur in the first few weeks, before the mother even realizes that she is pregnant. Damage to the brain is therefore not prevented.
If a mother is drinking during pregnancy, the fetus is drunk far longer due to its size and the concentration effects. Two things then occur. First of all, the brain, which would normally grow outward like a blooming flower, freezes and then, when the baby is “sober” it blooms and grows too quickly. Secondly, alcohol can actually form holes in certain areas of the brain. Imagine what would happen if you dipped your hand into a pail of bleach and then sprinkled the liquid on the brain. Damage occurs where drops land. Both of these are physical injuries.
I remember the course instructor stating that those with FAS often need an “external brain” to help them make decisions because the brain can “short in” and “short out” without any notice. One day, the person can communicate and remember things while within hours or days, that information is gone. How sad!
In life we are never disappointed unless we have expectations. Unfortunately, when we expect someone with FAS to behave in a certain way or follow through on commitments they have made, we will frequently be disappointed. They might be able to do things at times but usually not on a consistent basis.
Keep in mind that I am generalizing. There are variations, of course, in all individuals. Some with FAS might have unique physical features or characteristics whereas others cannot be recognized as having any differences at all from others. Also, some might need more support than others.
There really isn’t any formula or precise theory that would indicate the amount of alcohol, frequency of drinking or other factors which would result in symptoms. Some researchers have pointed to the ability of the woman’s womb to filter out and protect the baby. The research continues.
Those who are related to or working with individuals who have FAS need to take care of themselves as these can be frustrating and disappointing relationships for everyone involved. The child and growing adult can sincerely want to do well and make efforts for this to occur, but the efforts might be sabotaged by no fault of their own. And growing older does not significantly change the FAS brain.
Each of us is unique and we all have needs and desires. In addition, we all have problems and weaknesses. Having FAS, however, usually means that issues are not as easy to hide or remedy than for other people
I believe that there are many things that we can do for those with FAS. First of all, gain some knowledge, understanding and compassion. Secondly, ensure that appropriate resources are in place to help rather than criticize and condemn. Thirdly, advocate for communities to recognize the challenges faced by and presented by those with FAS.
Ancient proverbs state: “A chain is no stronger than its weakest link”. It is therefore our responsibility to identify the weakest links in society and then help them to strengthen in order for the chain to become stronger.Each of us is part of the community chain and therefore has some responsibility to improve it.