Discussion paper

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) is a non-diagnostic umbrella term that is used to cover the full range of possible birth defects and developmental issues that can be caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. This paper describes some of these consequences for children's development and may be useful for practitioners working with children and families where alcohol consumption is of concern. It may be of interest to practitioners and caregivers who support children with challenging behaviour and where prenatal alcohol exposure may be suspected. It outlines some principles for supporting children and families affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy is linked to a range of adverse outcomes for the unborn child. These are included under the umbrella term fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), a term that reflects the broad range of physical, cognitive, developmental and behavioural effects that prenatal alcohol exposure can have (Drug Education Network, 2011; Sokol, Delany-Black & Nordstrom, 2003; Riley, Infante, & Warren, 2011).  FASD is often described as a "hidden" disorder, because children do not necessarily show any physical abnormalities, despite being profoundly affected (Drug Education Network, 2011; House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, 2012).

FASD is a lifelong disorder, with both primary and secondary "symptoms". Primary symptoms are caused by the direct impact of alcohol exposure on the developing brain and can mean difficulties in executive functioning (organisation, planning), memory, speech and language skills and social impulsivity. Over time, secondary symptoms can emerge as the mismatch between the child's needs and their broader environment expands. Secondary symptoms will commonly include disrupted peer relationships, fractured educational and placement experiences and increased likelihood of coming in contact with youth justice services - all contributing to a poor self-concept. FASD has a profound impact on children, their caregivers and society.

Knowledge and understanding as well as well-coordinated cross-sector initiatives will be needed to reduce the impact of FASD on children's lives.

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