Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a devastating disorder. It can affect individuals on a variety of levels and the fact that it’s caused by carelessness and is entirely preventable can be especially infuriating.
And I should know – I was born with it.
Living with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
It wasn’t until I was much older that my father finally told me the truth.
Up until then I, just thought I was a bit slower than everyone else. I’d had tutors and special classes to help me along through school and at the time, the public’s attitude toward disability was much different than it is today. Because of that, I was never told WHY I needed a bit of extra help.
Despite it all, though, I had done well for myself. I had a great job, an amazing boyfriend, and friends that supported me no matter what I was going through.
But after my mother died, my father called me out of the blue one day and said he needed to confess something. “You were born,” he said, “with a mild form of fetal alcohol syndrome.”
I was shocked. I wondered why they hadn’t told me sooner, why this was just coming up now.
Being married to an addict must have been tough though. From everything he tells me, he was deeply in love with her from the moment they met. I can’t imagine trying to leave someone you felt so strongly about.
Instead, he ended up convincing her that she had a problem with the help of her friends and sisters. They pointed out all the signs that drinking had turned from a simple hobby into a full-blown problem and, with a bit of work, got her on the path towards sobriety.
Once news spread about the hazards of drinking during pregnancy, the shame of the danger she had put me in was too much to face and she swore my father to secrecy.
I was angry at them both for years. How could they have been so careless? But over time, I began to accept what happened not as just a bad judgment call, but rather as the result of bad information.
Few people knew the effects of alcohol on a developing fetus and weren’t aware of the serious harm it could cause back then. That’s why I’ve made it my mission to spread the word about FAS. The more people know about it, the better able they’ll be to prevent it from happening to their child.
What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that occurs in anywhere from 0.1% to 5% of the population and is caused directly by drinking alcohol while being pregnant. Its effects can be pronounced in some and subtler in others, depending on the degree of exposure to alcohol in the womb.
One of the biggest problems today is that many people think that although drinking heavily while pregnant is a serious problem, having just a bit of alcohol every now and then is perfectly fine. This misconception is so widely believed that 20% to 30% of women are estimated to drink at some point in their pregnancy.
But this is wrong.
Studies show that there is no amount of alcohol that’s safe for women to drink during pregnancy. Plus, it’s also been shown that alcohol can alter fetal development in every single stage of pregnancy, even before the pregnancy is actually recognized.
That means that no matter how much you actually do decide to drink and however far along you are, you could still be hurting your unborn child’s development. This is especially important to realize since drinking trends are on the rise, specifically among women.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is part of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) and was actually the first form of FASDs that was discovered. This broad class of disorders also includes partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).
In addition, the spectrum has recently been expanded to include the neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE) according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
How Does Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Happen?
When you are pregnant, most things that happen to your body can directly affect the development of your child. You and your baby are physically intertwined. Your breath is its breath, your food its food.
And while alcohol is filtered a bit through the liver and the placenta before reaching your child, any amount entering into your baby’s blood stream can slow down or completely change the future course of development. The brain and other critical organs and systems can all be impacted by the presence of this substance.
What Are Some of the Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
There are a range of effects from fetal alcohol syndrome that can be cognitive, physical, and behavioral.
Physically, FAS can manifest in distinct features such as:
- Small eyes
- An especially thin upper lip
- An upturned and short nose
- Visual or hearing problems
- Heart, kidney and bone defects
The cognitive effects are significant too:
- Poor memory
- Difficulty reasoning, problem solving, and seeing the consequences of choices
- Intellectual disabilities and learning disorders
- Diminished coordination
Behaviorally, individuals with FAS may demonstrate:
- Poor social skills
- An inability to stay on task
- Trouble socializing with others
- Weak impulse control
- Difficulties in school
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: An Unnecessary Risk
I was angry at my mother for a long time for putting me in danger like she did. I thought she was just being careless with the life that was growing inside of her – my life.
But when I look back on the love she gave so unconditionally and her willingness to do anything for me, I know that my disorder is the result of ignorance, not thoughtlessness.
That’s why it’s important to learn as much as possible about this unnecessary disorder and prevent it from affecting the lives of others.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2017 June). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) – Data & Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/data.html
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (n.d.). Fetal Alcohol Exposure. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/fetal-alcohol-exposure