My Adopted Child Has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: What Does the Future Hold?

This article defines Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and the related disorders associated with alcohol consumption during pregnancy. It takes a look at what the future may hold for children with FAS and their parents.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) affects some children who have been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. If you have adopted a child with FAS, you may have known about the possibility of FAS prior to the adoption, or you may have been taken by surprise. Either way, it is a heartbreaking diagnosis, and one that leaves parents contemplating what the future holds.

The only way to prevent FAS is by avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it enters the baby’s blood stream. Within a few minutes, the blood-alcohol level of the baby is almost equal to that of the mother’s. Some children who are exposed to alcohol in the womb are more severely affected than others. There are several factors that determine how the baby will be affected. The main factor is how much alcohol is consumed during pregnancy. Generally, the more the birth mother drinks, the greater the chance that the baby will be affected. Another factor is the timing during the pregnancy that the birth mother drinks. During first trimester, the baby’s organs, limbs, and face are developing. Drinking alcohol during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy can seriously affect development in these areas. Alcohol exposure during the second trimester can affect the baby’s growth, making the baby smaller than expected. During the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, the brain continues to develop. Alcohol exposure during this period can lead to problems with the forming of the brain and the way it works. The birth mother’s genetic make-up and the way her body metabolizes alcohol is also a factor in how the baby will be affected.

The term “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders” (FASD) is used to describe anyone who has been affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. A child who is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy may have brain damage, even if there are no apparent physical characteristics of FAS. A child who has been affected by prenatal alcohol exposure may receive one of the following diagnoses: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (PFAS), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND), or Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD). To receive a diagnosis of FAS, the child must have growth problems, certain facial differences, and brain damage. A child diagnosed with PFAS will have a different looking face and either a growth problem or a problem with learning and/or behavior. Children with ARND have learning or behavior problems associated with alcohol exposure, but do not have facial differences or growth problems. Children with ARBD have confirmed prenatal exposure to alcohol and alcohol-related birth defects, but do not have the typical FAS facial features or any learning problems.

The facial features associated with FAS include wide-set eyes, small eye openings, a smooth area between the nose and lip, and a thin upper lip. Most people cannot tell that a child has FAS just by looking at him/her, because the facial features associated with FAS are subtle. Other physical characteristics or birth defects associated with FAS include: cleft palate, small teeth, eye problems, hearing problems, heart defects, kidney changes, genital changes, a dimple at the base of the spine, an unusual chest shape, curved fingers, shortened fingers and/or toes, small finger and toenails, low muscle tone, low birth weight, small head size, and small stature.

The brain is the organ that is most affected by alcohol before the baby is born. The brain may not look different, but alcohol can damage parts of the brain that cannot be seen. Alcohol damages the part of the brain that controls memory, self-control, coordination, and judgment. As a result, children with FAS may have problems learning, poor attention span, behavior problems, and problems with fine motor skills. These children may be hyperactive, have seizures, and develop slowly. About 25% of children with FAS will have mental retardation, meaning an IQ below 70.

If you have adopted a child with FAS or any of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, you are probably wondering what the future will hold for your child. Every child with FAS is different and has his/her own unique potential for succeeding in life. Problems in school are common, and include short attention span, impulsivity, aggressiveness, tantrums, mood changes, and learning disabilities. As the child grows, he/she may display the following: poor judgment, poor problem-solving abilities, trouble applying knowledge and higher thinking, problems understanding cause and effect, lack of common sense, and problems with time and money management. Schools offer intervention services for students with FAS. The Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Community Resource Center (FAS-CRC) at www.come-over.to/FASCRC/ offers suggestions on how parents and caregivers can become advocates for their child with FAS in the school setting.

Additional resources for families include: National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS), Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Family Resource Institute (FAS-FRI), The ARC of the United States, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Center for Excellence, and the Organization of Teratology Information Services (OTIS). There is no cure for FAS, but the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure can be lessened if the child receives appropriate care beginning as early as possible.

Children with FAS may “outgrow” some of the facial features associated with FAS as they grow into adulthood. Most likely they will continue to have learning, behavior, and social problems into adulthood. Adults with FAS are more likely to use poor judgment. This can lead to trouble with the law, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. A loving, structured home can help lessen the chance of a child with FAS suffering these problems. Approximately 80% of people with FAS are not able to live on their own and are not able to find or keep a job. However, many people with FAS are able to learn a skill or trade. Some adults with FAS live successfully in group home settings. Some people with FAS attend and complete college, but it may take them longer to finish a degree. With the right resources and interventions, adults with FAS can become contributing members of their communities.

On a personal note, my daughter, who was adopted from Eastern Europe, has been diagnosed with FAS. Although she faces a lifetime of possible struggles, she is the happiest and most inspiring person I know. The experience of taking her from a difficult beginning in life, offering her love, support, and stability, and watching her blossom, has truly been a gift!

Source: “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: A Parents Guide to Caring for a Child Diagnosed with FAS,” available at www.otispregnancy.org.

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Gregory Tarleton-Markov
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Posted on May 8, 2010