What is FASD?

What is FASD?


Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders


Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is an umbrella term which refers to a range of conditions caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. There is reference to negative child outcomes from alcohol consumption during pregnancy as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans and in medical literature from England in the 1800's. Read more



The range of conditions within the spectrum include:

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome 
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders - Alcohol Exposed


Although the use of 'fetal' may imply that these conditions only relate to babies; children, young people and adults can have one of these conditions. The effects of fetal alcohol exposure are life-long and may not be seen at birth.



Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


A minority of people will have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS) which can be identified by abnormal facial features:

  • a smooth philtrum (no groove between the upper lip and nose)
  • thin vermillion border (thin upper lip)
  • short palpebral fissures (small eye openings)



The facial development of the fetus occurs mainly between weeks 4 and 8 (often before a woman knows she is pregnant). The distinctive facial features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are included in the photos below. Photos have been reproduced with permission from Susan Astley, University of Washington

For more information please go to the University of Washington FAS Diagnostic & Prevention Network website



FAS Facial features





Children with  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome will also have:

  • low birth weight 
  • a small head (microcephaly)
  • poor growth 
  • brain damage
  • social and behavioural problems
  • delayed development
  • low IQ



Birth defects are not unique to prenatal alcohol exposure and may have other causes.  Birth defects identified in children exposed to alcohol in pregnancy can include:

  • heart defects
  • cleft lip and palate
  • genital defects
  • kidney problems
  • cerebral palsy
  • limb anomalies such as curved little fingers, extra fingers or toes, additional creases in hand




Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

A person with Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome will have some but not all of the symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.




Neurodevelopmental Disorders - Alcohol Exposed

The majority of people with FASD will fall within this category. They will not have the facial features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome but will have a range of symptoms caused by damage to the brain structure of the developing fetus and will have lifelong effects on the person.



The diagram below shows which parts of the brain are responsible for how we think, act and behave and the problems that may be caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.



Brain development & alcohol



What are the possible effects on babies and infants?


  • low birth weight
  • decreased muscle tone and poor coordination
  • delayed development such as walking and talking
  • hypersensitivity to noise, light and touch
  • bonding problems
  • irritability
  • poor feeding
  • poor waking/sleeping patterns



What are the problems for people with FASD?


  • Developmental delay
  • Poor growth
  • Low IQ - only a small percentage of people will have an 'Intellectual Disability' (IQ <70) ... most will register at the lower end of normal. But a low IQ indicates a degree of cognitive impairment
  • Poor language and communication skills - may seem competent and agree but not understand
  • Slow cognitive and auditory pace
  • Poor memory and short attention span
  • Poor judgement and inability to understand cause and effect
  • Repeating the same actions or behaviours in the absence of a rationale for that behaviour or emotion
  • Poor organisational and planning skills
  • Difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Problems with maths, time and money
  • Impaired judgement and impulsivity
  • Emotional - irrability, angry, frustrated, immature
  • Sensory problems - noise, lighting, pain, cold
  • Motor co-ordination problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • High levels of activity
  • Social and behavioural problems
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships and sometimes being indiscriminately friendly


 These can lead to ...


  • Difficutly planning, setting golas, being on time and complying with legal obligations
  • Issues at school
  • Multiple foster care placements
  • Reduced self-esteem and depression
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviour (victim and perpetrator)
  • Inability to live independently
  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Trouble with the law



Researchers and parents say that it is not 'bad behaviour' but the actions of a person who has damage to their brain and who is unable to control what they do.  



People with a FASD grow, change and improve if their enviornment provides support for their cognitive differences. Early recognition of alcohol-exposed infants and early diagnosis of FASD is crucial to allow a process of assessment and therapy for children at the earliest age possible to improve their social, health and educational outcomes; and decrease the risk of secondary disabilities such as school failure, unemployment, substance abuse, mental health disorders, and engagement with the criminal justice system.



The aim is to improve long term outcomes for children, to help treat vulnerable women and their families, and to prevent subsequent births of affected children.



 How is FASD diagnosed?












Cost of FASD to the community

International research estimates a lifetime cost of US$2.5 million per person with FAS - includes service use and loss of productivity (Popova et al., 2011)