FASD – An invisible disability

What is FASD?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a preventable, lifelong disability, resulting from prenatal exposure to alcohol, that has no cure. It is a brain injury, done to a developing brain. It is not a behavioural issue, therefore must be treated differently.

Students with FASD often find school a difficult place where they do not experience success. As more students are being diagnosed with FASD the prevalence of this disability is beginning to emerge.

FASD student
Image source: Flickr – Lily Monster under CC

This blog post aims to provide you with an awareness of FASD and a starting point for your own investigation.

How prevalent is FASD?

The Ministry of Health say about half of all pregnancies are exposed to alcohol, and about 1% of the New Zealand population is estimated to have FASD as a result. This translates to at least 600 newborns affected every year within New Zealand.

Taking Action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD): A discussion document outlines the Government’s proposed approach for addressing FASD. It outlines a series of key principles, high level outcomes and potential action areas for the action plan and seeks feedback on how we could do things differently.

Common school experiences for:

  • Students aged 5–12 years

“He spent a lot of his time sitting outside the principal’s office or in the isolation room.” 

  • Students aged 13–20 years

“He got into trouble because he was hanging around his cousin and his friends and wanted to please them by doing things they wanted him to do.”
Taken from Dubovsky 2013: 67

Opportunities and protective factors where schools can make a difference highlighted in the document are:

  • Specialist assessment and interventions and support from parents, teachers and other professionals can help to mitigate issues and keep children engaged in education.
  • The right kind of supports or interventions can help to lessen the likelihood and impact of these issues.

Recognising FASD

Have you got a student who just isn’t learning? They may seem to grasp a concept one day and the next it’s totally gone? In this video, psychologist Dan Dubovsky describes students with FASD. As a father of a child with FASD, he speaks from a personal and professional perspective that challenges us to look at our students positively and recognise the incredible strengths they have. 

How does FASD affect learning?

FASD is a complex and varied disability.

The FASD brain functions differently.

The effects of FASD vary in range and severity for each individual. As a result, no two children with FASD learn and function in exactly the same way. Your knowledge of FASD, practical strategies for successful learning, and encouragement are vital to the child’s learning.

Children with FASD may have a range of disabilities including:

  • developmental delays
  • learning disabilities
  • working memory problems
  • motor skill impairment
  • language delays or impairment
  • difficulty focusing attention
  • lack of inhibition/impulse control, hyperactivity
  • difficulty with problem solving, cognitive flexibility
  • impaired executive functioning
  • anxiety
  • difficulties in communicating feelings and understanding consequences

How can schools and teachers support children who have FASD?

“If you get that warm feeling when you walk in your classroom, where else would you wanna go?”
Skylare, 17 year old student with FASD

Begin with understanding:

  • what FASD is
  • how FASD affects learning

Use this knowledge to develop strategies for supporting your learners with FASD and to create an inclusive classroom where children with FASD can participate and learn

Tips for teaching children with FASD

But I'm trying so hard and you don't even know
Image source: Poppytalk: Hand-lettering

  • Get to know your students – really know them. Every child with FASD has a unique set of strengths e.g. creativity, artistic ability and helpfulness. Identify and build skills and competencies around these.
  • Build a working relationship with parents/caregivers – they know their child, and may be coping with a lot of tiring behaviours at home.
  • Develop reasonable expectations – goals need to be shared. If they are not working, re-evaluate the goal not the child.
  • Understand; an individual with FASD can improve their brain function – how much and to what extent depends on the individual.
  • Realise all behaviour is functional – it may not be functional for you when the student throws the desk but it has a function for him/her. What is the function behind the behaviour? Shift your thinking from “the child that is bad” to “the child that needs help”.
  • Provide structure and routine – this is essential to reduce anxieties and allow the child a sense of predictability while learning.
  • Avoid sensory and cognitive overload – use calming strategies and regular breaks. Maintain a low stress environment.
  • Build a relevant and meaningful community of practice to support your work with students with FASD. You can’t do it alone.
  • Utilise successful approaches and resources created by other practitioners.

Useful resources

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