Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

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A pregnant woman saying no to a glass of wine.

What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the umbrella term for the lifelong impairments caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.[1]

What are the causes of FASD?

FASD is caused by consumption of alcohol throughout the pregnancy, when alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord.[2] Including the earliest stages of pregnancy, before the mother even knows she may be pregnant, there is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy, and there is no safe time to drink alcohol from conception through pregnancy and breastfeeding.[3]

Alcohol keeps nutrients from being absorbed by the body. As a result, pregnant women who drink alcohol can become malnourished. Their babies can also become malnourished in utero if women drink alcohol while they are pregnant.

Boy with words describing  FASD disorder in a wine circle

What are common signs and symptoms of FASD?

The conditions of FASD affect each person in different ways and can range widely in severity and presentation. Common signs and symptoms of FASD include some combination of the following: 

  • Hyperactivity
  • Mood disorders
  • Hyper or hyposensitivity to light, sound, texture
  • Difficulty with attention 
  • Difficulty in school 
  • Poor memory 
  • Poor reasoning and judgment 
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ (although most have IQ in the normal range)
  • Learning disabilities 
  • Poor coordination 
  • Vision or hearing problems 
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or skeletal system
  • Low body weight 
  • Abnormal facial features: smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip, small eyes, thin upper lip (This is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome [FAS] and is present in fewer than 10% of people who have a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.)
  • Functioning is often at a much younger age than chronological.

Diagnosis and treatments for FASD

Diagnosis of FASD requires documentation of severe impairments in at least three areas of functioning, exposure to alcohol, and rule-out of other explanation for these impairments. Testing is done to determine performance in the areas of concern. Facial features may be measured to see if Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is present, in which case alcohol documentation is not needed. Diagnostic testing is usually done by a team, but if recent previous test results are available this is not necessary.

There is no cure for the alcohol-affected brain damage of FASD, but there are treatment and supports that can help. Some examples include medication to help with some symptoms, medical care for health problems, FASD-informed behavior and education therapy, and parental support and trainings. An essential element of treatment for FASD focuses on helping the caregiver understand and address the disability. Good FASD treatment plans are specific to the child’s challenges, build on their strengths, and tailored to their unique needs. Typically, those treatment plans are composed of close monitoring, follow-ups, and changes to medication, diet, or routine as needed. 

There are protective factors that can help reduce the effects of FASDs, allowing those affected to be able to reach their full potential. Those protective factors include:

  • Early diagnosis – before the age of 6 years
  • Absence of violence around them 
  • Involvement in special education and social services
  • A loving, nurturing, and stable home environment
  • Full understanding by the family and any other caregivers of the disability itself.


FASD Resources

Santa Clara County Resources

FASD Diagnosis – Services to diagnose FASD for children ages 0-17 are available by referral at three County of Santa Clara Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics Clinics: Valley Health Center (VHC) Bascom, VHC Downtown, and VHC Gilroy.
Referrals for diagnosis must be made by the child’s pediatrician or primary care provider. For more information call the clinic main line at (408) 885-7709.

Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services Department

First 5 of Santa Clara County Health Screenings

What is FASD? (video)

FASD Toolkit

NotEven1 - FASD Flyer

NotEven1 - FASD Postcard

Pregnancy, Breastfeeding and Parenting

Mothers Milk Bank

Consuming Substances While Pregnant

General FASD Information

CDC – FASD – Basics about FASDs 

CDC – FASD – Data & Statistics

 Know FASD – Lifespan Neurobehavioral Difficulties 

FASD treatments and living with FASD

CDC – FASD – Treatments 

NOFAS – Living with FASD

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4959594/
 [2] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html
 [3] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html


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