Wednesday, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) was trending on Facebook after a profound article was featured by the Washington Post that told the tragic story of a woman named Kathy Mitchell, who caused her own daughter’s disability. Kathy later learned her daughter, Karli, suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which was caused by her own alcohol consumption while she was pregnant.

Kathy admits she battled alcoholism, but in her defense, the Washington Post pointed out that in 1973, when Kathy gave birth to Karli, doctors barely knew of the effects that alcohol consumption or even binge drinking had on a fetus. At that time, mothers were told that drinking wine was good for blood flow and was probably even healthy to consume during pregnancy.

Readers’ reactions included shock that anyone could think that binge drinking wouldn’t hurt a fetus, but even today, public awareness about alcohol consumption during pregnancy is limited. For example, social media posts and comments indicate that the Washington Post article was going overboard by warning that there is no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy.

“Good grief. She didn’t ‘drink alcohol’ she was an alcoholic who drank excessively! And smoked. There is a BIG difference. Journalists should know that and not sensationalize. Lots of us have mothers who drank occasionally while pregnant and have no problems,” one reader commented on the Washington Post’s Facebook post.

The truth is that the article sensationalized nothing. Alcohol’s damage to a fetus can be just as insidious when a mother drinks lightly or moderately — it is just less obvious sometimes. For a person exposed to alcohol prenatally, if the brain damage is so severe that their IQ is drastically lowered, while it destroys the life they would have otherwise had, it also offers some protective qualities. A low IQ means more services, less expectations. There are still other victims of prenatal alcohol exposure, though, and in their invisible disabilities, alcohol still manages to permanently alter the course of their lives.

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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder covers a range of impairments. The Washington Post author wrote that the “effects can include impaired growth, intellectual disabilities and such neurological, emotional and behavioral issues as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, vision problems and speech and language delays,” but this description fails to describe the actual impact the brain damage can have and also fails to describe the secondary and tertiary effects of living with a FASD, even on the so-called higher functioning end of the spectrum.

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Val Surbey’s adoptive son Christopher was found stabbed to death in 2005 after sneaking out in the middle of the night. Christopher spoke well and looked normal, but while normally people consider consequences before acting, because Christopher was exposed to alcohol prenatally, he did not. Once, before he died, he went to court for assaulting a staff member and damaging property at Macdonald Youth Services.

“He had to sign a paper that he really had no idea what he was signing: He had to keep the peace, he couldn’t bear firearms, and he couldn’t do this or that, and of course, he breached every one of those in the first week. He didn’t get it. He could probably recite it to you, but couldn’t put it into practice,” Surbey said.

Although his brain was damaged through no fault of his own, he seemed normal, according to a featured article in the Winnipeg Free Press. His struggles with the justice system are common for people living with a FASD.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, people affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol are often imprisoned because their invisible disability causes a lack of impulse control, trouble thinking of the future consequences of current behavior, difficulty planning, difficulty empathizing, lack of responsibility, trouble delaying gratification, and poor judgment. The literature also cites a tendency towards explosive episodes and a vulnerability to peer pressure as additional reasons for habitual incarceration among people with a FASD.

A teen with a FASD is estimated to have a 19 times higher risk of becoming incarcerated than a teen without a FASD, according to the Conversation. The prevalence of having a disruptive school experience (such as an expulsion) is 61 percent, being in trouble with the law is 60 percent, repeatedly exhibiting inappropriate sexual behaviors is 49 percent, and having drug and/or alcohol problems is 35 percent among people with a FASD.

Here’s the thing, though. If a person is given their diagnosis at an early age while simultaneously reared in a stable environment, the odds of escaping these secondary outcomes is increased two- to four-fold. That is why it is so critical that the public is made more fully aware of what it means to be prenatally exposed to alcohol, experts say. Some caregivers have seen less severe secondary and tertiary side effects by implementing strategies detailed by Diane Malbin in Trying Differently Rather Than Harder, but without greater awareness and adequate diagnoses, too many Americans living with effects from fetal alcohol exposure will never benefit from this alternative upbringing.

Additionally, alcohol during pregnancy is now linked to a multitude of conditions that most people do not associate with FASD.

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The general public is unaware that life-altering brain damage could occur even when a mother does not drink heavily, even though in 2013, a study in PLOS One showed that even a relatively small amount of alcohol during fetal development could lead to long-term brain alterations. Even a small amount of alcohol could cause anxiety-like behavior and could cause structural changes with the basolateral amygdala which is, according to the Journal of Neuroscience, “intimately involved in the development of conditional fear.” Meanwhile, research from the University of Queensland found that women who “drank two 150ml glasses of wine or about two stubbies of full-strength beer during pregnancy” had children who had lower test scores at age 11. Furthermore, according to Medical Daily, FASDs are commonly misdiagnosed as ADHD.

What is your current impression of the damage that alcohol can do to a fetus? Does any of the recent research clash with what you were previously told about FASDs?

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on our sacred breath and commented:
    A great article. Examples of what CAN happen to a child if the birth mom drinks alcohol while pregnant. Society may not have known 10, 20 or 30 years ago but we know now. No alcohol if you are trying to get pregnant and no alcohol while you are pregnant. It’s the safest choice. And if you have had alcohol during pregnancy please tell your healthcare provider so you can get supports for your child and yourself. No shame, no stigma.

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