Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Until recently, only the most severe disabilities related to pregnancy and alcohol, like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, were recognized and diagnosed. The study of other types of disabilities due to alcohol exposure lead to the creation of a spectrum containing different degrees of disability.

The spectrum contains a series of diagnosable conditions which occur as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure. Each diagnosis within this umbrella can be characterized by Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAEs), which are a series of common physical and mental abnormalities. Each disorder involves at least some of the following symptoms and effects.

Physical Effects

  • Abnormal facial features
    • Smooth upper lip
    • Thinner boarder between the lips and normal skin
    • Small eyes
  • Smaller than average head size
  • Low body weight
  • Below-average height
  • Issues sleeping and latching as a baby
  • Below average coordination
  • Vision and hearing issues
  • Issues concerning the kidneys, bones, and heart

Mental Effects

  • Hyperactivity
  • Attention issues
  • Memory issues
  • Academic difficulties
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech delays
  • Lower than average IQ
  • Poor judgement skills
  • Irritability

Pregnancy and Drinking

Recent data collections from the CDC reveal that drinking during pregnancy is a relatively common event. The survey found that 1 in 9 pregnant women reported drinking within the last 30 days and 3% report binge drinking.

The CDC stressed in their report that no level of drinking is safe and no time during pregnancy is immune to the effects of alcohol. While it may seem like a negligible amount, even 1 glass of wine is considered unsafe. In utero alcohol exposure not only puts children at risk for cognitive and physical disabilities but can lead to several serious birthing complications.

  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Prematurity

An exact number is nearly impossible to know, but health organizations estimate 40,000 children a year could be born with a FASD.

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The Spectrum

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

FAS is the most well-known, and most severe of the Alcohol Spectrum disorders. In order to diagnose FAS, the person needs to exhibit:

  • Smooth philtrum (groove on the upper lip)
  • Thin vermillion border (border between the lips and surrounding skin)
  • Small palpebral fissures (distance between the corners of each eye)
  • General growth deficits
  • Central Nervous System abnormalities

These physical signs indicate the lifelong changes associated with serious fetal alcohol exposure. Compared to other diagnoses, fully developed Fetal Alcohol Syndrome displays more physical and mental symptoms.

Partial FAS

As the name suggests, Partial FAS shows almost all of the signs of a fully developed case of FAS. Partial cases may present fewer symptoms, but the majority of the impact one someone’s life is still there. People diagnosed with partial FAS often encounter trouble in school and exhibit similar kinds of central nervous system (CNS) differences as people with full FAS, they just don’t meet the requirements for a FAS diagnosis.

Static Encephalopathy/ Alcohol Exposed

The “static” portion of this disease refers to the fact that it doesn’t change significantly over time. Encephalopathy is defined as “a disease in which the functioning of the brain is affected by some agent or condition (such as viral infection or toxins in the blood).” The specific FAE symptoms may change from case to case because static encephalopathy only describes the fact that the issues are unchanging and related to the structure of the brain as it’s been altered by alcohol.

Each differentiation throughout the spectrum describes a different level of severity. Many of the challenges people face with these issues are often similar. Tasks that require planning and decision making often go awry because of the impact these disorders have on the brain and its ability to function typically.

Neurobehavioral Disorder associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)

A recent addition to the FASD family of disorders, ND-PAE was officially added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) in 2013. It was added in order to distinguish people who suffered from the mental impacts of in utero exposure to alcohol. Specialists are expanding the effort to diagnose and treat less severe forms of FASD because of the sheer volume of pregnancies affected by alcohol.

Living with FASD

Research shows that few children born with FAS will be raised by their biological parents. As many as 85% of these children will find homes with their grandparents, relatives, foster parents, or adoptive parents. Less severe cases often go undetected, but still hamper the quality of life of the people dealing with the disease.

If undiagnosed, the host of mental handicaps associated with FASD will disrupt attempts to live a normal life. Difficulty organizing and following through on plans as well as an inability to comprehend instructions would make holding onto a job in any discipline difficult. These issues and other mental handicaps lead to increased rates of crime during adolescence which make the transition into adulthood all the more difficult.

You’re not alone

Giving up on alcohol completely when pregnant is challenging. Turning drinks down at 9 months of social events is a necessary step in giving your child the best shot at a healthy life. If you or a loved one is pregnant and struggling with alcohol use, reach out for help. Dedicated treatment providers are standing by to give you information based on people who’ve been through exactly what you’re experiencing. Now is always the best time to reach out for help if you think you need it. Don’t risk the lifelong impacts of disorders like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.


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