What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Courtesy of Godoy Medical Forensics


Prenatal alcohol exposure is the single leading preventable cause of neurodevelopmental disorders (Zagorski, 2015). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a blanket term for a number of effects that can occur in an individual who was exposed to alcohol in-utero. FASD affects about 40,000 infants each year (National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, 2014). The consequences may be physical, mental, behavioral, and/or cognitive, and have lifelong implications. The diagnosed conditions associated with prenatal alcohol exposure are fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial fetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS), neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE), and alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND).

FAS alone costs the U.S. about $5.4 billion annually. This in only one portion of the total societal cost of all the conditions of FASD. There is no cure, but FASD is 100 percent preventable when pregnant women abstain from drinking alcohol.

Who is at Risk?

If a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy—regardless of timing and amount—she is at risk of having a child with a FASD. Alcohol can affect an embryo before a woman knows that she is pregnant. Women who drink early in pregnancy but stop when they discover they are pregnant are still at risk. Women who have a child with FASD are at higher risk of having subsequent children with the disorder (National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, 2014).

Other factors that play a role in how fetal alcohol exposure affects children are:

  • Poor health and inadequate nutrition;
  • Living in an environment where binge or heavy drinking is common and accepted;
  • Little awareness of FASD;
  • Inadequate prenatal care;
  • Social isolation;
  • Exposure to high levels of stress.

What are the Effects of FASD?

The most serious and most common cause of mental retardation in the U.S. is fetal alcohol syndrome. The effects of FASD depend on the timing and frequency of alcohol consumption during the pregnancy. Some of the outcomes are:

  • Abnormal facial features;
  • Growth defects;
  • Brain damage, including intellectual disability;
  • Heart, lung, and kidney defects;
  • Hyperactivity and behavior problems;
  • Attention and memory problems;
  • Poor coordination and motor skill delays;
  • Difficulty with judgment and reasoning;
  • Learning disabilities.

Legal Implications

Individuals with FASD have difficulty with assessment, judgment, and reasoning, and often repeat the same mistakes multiple times because of their disabilities. They also do not understand the consequences of their actions. These behavioral impairments make someone with FASD more likely to make bad decisions, trust the wrong people, and get in trouble with the law. A large number of people with FASD do not mature socially beyond the level of a six year old, which makes them vulnerable to manipulation and coercion (U.S. National Library of Medicine) (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).

The following statistics are from the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:

  • Over 60 percent of people with FAS over the age of 12 have been charged with a crime;
  • 55 percent of people with an ARND will be confined to a prison, psychiatric institution, or drug/alcohol treatment center;
  • 95 percent of people with FAS also have a mental illness.



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