Discussion paper

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: current issues in awareness, prevention and intervention

Alcohol Maternal and infant welfare Pregnancy Children Child welfare Australia

This paper reviews the research and current policy surrounding prenatal alcohol exposure and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Alcohol use during pregnancy is linked to a spectrum of adverse fetal outcomes. This spectrum of abnormalities is collectively termed fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and may include physical, cognitive and/or developmental symptoms. The aim of this paper is to inform practitioners and other professionals working in a range of fields about the implications of FASD for children and their families. Current research on interventions or programs to work with families affected by FASD is also explored.

Key messages

  • Prenatal alcohol exposure can cause a range of cognitive and physical abnormalities in embryos that can lead to impairments in a range of functions: sensory systems, language and communication, processing pace, learning and memory, abstract thinking, and executive functioning.
  • Misunderstanding and labelling of those with FASD can lead to a poor self-concept, disrupted peer relationships, fractured educational and placement experiences and contact with youth justice services.
  • The prevalence of FASD is likely to be underestimated by current measures. Certain populations, including children in out-of-home care and children in contact with youth justice services are thought to include an over-representation of individuals living with an undetected FASD.
  • Tackling FASD requires focused and coordinated multidisciplinary and cross sector approaches. More information about the prevalence and nature of FASD will allow for improved service planning and implementation.
  • Policy directions are needed that prioritise the screening and prevention of FASD in the community.
  • Current and future professionals, including those in traditionally adult-focused services, need awareness and knowledge about the significance of FASD and prenatal alcohol exposure on children's lives.
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