Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Awareness Day is held each year on 9 September, to promote the importance of staying alcohol-free throughout pregnancy.
FASD is a lifelong condition. The term describes impacts on the brain and body of a person who has been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. It is the leading cause of birth defects, developmental and learning disability worldwide.
The National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (NOFASD) exists to support people who have been touched by this disorder and raise greater awareness of the condition.
Many people with FASD live with significant cognitive, behavioural, health and learning difficulties, including problems with memory, attention, cause and effect reasoning, impulsivity, receptive language and adaptive functioning difficulties.
“FASD presents very similarly to trauma in terms of impacts on the brain and can often be missed or misdiagnosed,” said NOFASD CEO Sophie Harrington.
“Children with FASD may cope in ways that are behavioural, because they often can’t deal with social situations – they get overstimulated and can’t regulate their emotions. Their behaviours aren’t perceived as a disability, they are seen as bad behaviour, or bad parenting.”
Harrington said that there are many myths associated with the condition, which affects between 2 and 5% of Australians.
“A common myth is that FASD only affects certain groups in the community: people who are from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, or from lower socio-economic, backgrounds,” said Harrington.
“That’s not actually true.”
Harrington stated that people from any cultural or socio-economic group can be impacted by FASD: wherever there is alcohol, there is a risk.
Another major misconception is that the condition is easily observable in individuals at birth, simply by looking at the facial features of the affected person. Harrington said that only a very small number of people living with FASD present with diagnostic facial features, which means it is often not diagnosable at birth.
Recent research has found that FASD is around two and a half times more prevalent than Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 50-60% of women reported drinking during pregnancy. Around 50% of pregnancies are also unplanned. Harrington said that damage from prenatal alcohol exposure can occur before a pregnancy is confirmed. The first 8 weeks of a pregnancy is the period during which the fetus is most sensitive to alcohol.
“Unfortunately, there is no minimum threshold, no safe amount, no safe type and no safe time throughout a pregnancy” said Harrington.
Early detection of the condition dramatically improves a person’s outcomes, and diagnosis can often be given at a young age.
NOFASD has adopted the international “Red Shoes Rock” campaign, created by R.J. Formanek, as part of FASD Awareness Day. Formanek founded the successful Facebook support group “Flying with Broken Wings” in order to change the conversation about FASD and help to reduce the stigma.
On the 9th of September, people are encouraged to wear red shoes to support the movement.
“It’s always about community awareness – supporting someone to avoid alcohol whilst planning a pregnancy or pregnant is something we can all do,” said Harrington.
“If more people understood that just low levels of alcohol can impact on pregnancies, there would be less stigma in society.”
People who have FASD or are interested in learning more can contact NOFASD Australia on 1800 860 613 or by visiting their website www.nofasd.org.au.
Sarah Jacob is a journalist and editor and is currently The Advocate's Deputy Editor. She has written for a range of print and online publications across Australia and internationally with a focus on the environment and human rights. Previously she worked in conservation science and protected area management, and has completed postgraduate degrees in journalism and marine science.