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Troubled Children with FASD

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A short time ago I came across an article in Reader's Digest, March 2000 by Bonnie Buxton titled "Society's Child." "That's it," I said to myself. "Our adopted son is a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder child like Buxton's daughter, Colette." I left my phone number at the abuse centre mentioned in the article, and within minutes Buxton phoned back. I began my story about our son's behaviour at age five: smoking, stealing, angry, violent outbursts. Buxton said, "I know." I couldn't control the tears as she recited what behaviour anomalies he'd had while growing up. She knew my story. It followed the same progression which she describes in her book about Colette--Damaged Angels (Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2004). My son isn't ready to tell our story so I'll write about Colette.

Buxton and her husband adopted Colette when she was age three though they had known her at her foster home since she was ten months old. She was a cheerful child and loved animals. A few month later another side of her character appeared. She began to steal and could look her parents in the eye and lie about it. She seemed to have no conscience. Buxton and her husband are well-educated, outstanding and contributing citizens. They read about managing deviant behaviour, sought help from social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Specialists often concluded that the child was lazy or that the behaviour could relate to the adoption or that better parenting was required. (Search for help with our son netted the same results.) Colette fell behind at school, seemed angry and was sometimes violent at home. By age 14 Colette was skipping school, was into drugs, sex and alcohol. While in a structured treatment center for two years, she functioned well, but after she returned home the turmoil resumed. At seventeen she'd be gone for days, was into drugs, and who knows what other things she was up to as a street kid. The Children's Aid Society was not helpful, the Psychiatrist from Sick Kids hospital in Toronto wasn't helpful.

About that time Buxton watched a CBC program on TV where a man with Fetal Alcohol disabilities was interviewed. His symptoms were identical to Colette's. No professional had linked Colette's symptoms to FASD even though since 1973 the medical profession in North America has been aware that alcohol consumption by expectant mothers damages the unborn child's brain. "We were relieved to learn that her problems were not her fault or ours, but we felt sadness at the frustration she must have felt during a lifetime of being told to `do better' when she was unable to," wrote Buxton. With Colette, drugs and alcohol lost appeal and now she strives to lead a balanced life.

What is FASD? The term Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder covers a variety of symptoms of people who were alcohol damaged in utero. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, the alcohol crosses the placenta and enters the baby's blood stream where it affects many parts of the developing fetus and in particular, the brain. The damage is permanent. Husbands and friends of pregnant women should realize that their attitudes and actions can enable the mother to stay clear of alcohol while pregnant. FASD is preventable.

Dr. Tony Barozzino, Chief of Pediatrics at St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto reported alarming Canadian statistics: 90% will have health problems, 61% will not finish high school, 60% will be in trouble with the law, 50% will be incarcerated, 80% can't live independently and 70% can't find a job.

Diagnosis of FASD. If the pregnant mother used alcohol, the child should be examined for FASD. The following are body characteristics which may have resulted from the mother's alcohol consumption: small birth weight, small head circumference, small eye openings, smooth philtrum (the crease between the nose and lip), and thin upper lip. FASD should be considered when problems arise regarding: attention, memory, hyperactivity, abstract concepts, managing money, problem solving, leaning from consequences, immature social behaviour, lack of emotional and impulse control and poor judgment. If the baby's first bowel movement, meconium, shows a higher than usual amount of the ester metabolized from alcohol, the baby is at risk of being FASD. Professionals should investigate.

At a symposium, John, a man in his thirties, related what it was like to have a fetal alcohol related disability. He reminds himself to stop, take a deep breath, and walk away when he feels angry and in conflict. He works well with his hands and learns when he is shown how to do something rather than relying on literature. Managing money and keeping a job are problematic. He requires more sleep than average and has trouble falling asleep.

During the symposium the Winnipeg Special Education Department demonstrated their strategies to provide a non-stressful environment. Classrooms are comfortable but devoid of bric-a-brac. Materials are brought out as needed. Children are given hands-on instruction, in small repeated doses. The teacher pays attention to life skills and blends in academics. Punishment doesn't work. These children require secure, supportive, non-judgmental surrounding. Caregivers focus on the child's strengths. Children with FASD are usually compassionate, good with animals, mechanics, computers, art, music and they value fairness.

Canadian caregivers benefit from sharing at regular group meetings and from online data at Fasworld.

Online information about FASD is available: 1) for Japanese findings of Suzuki Kenji et al refer to Science Links Japan, the Journal of Alcohol Studies and Drug Dependence and from work at Kurihama Alcoholism Center; 2) for observations and data collected by Peggy Seo Oba, MBA, Google "Peggy Seo Oba", 3) search Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder online for studies conducted around the world.

Children like Colette have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, a form of permanent brain damage due to alcohol consumption by the pregnant mother. These children have trouble learning and socializing. With training life skills can improve. Are we doing enough to prevent FASD? Are we managing to raise children with FASD to succeed?