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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

What's the Problem?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition that causes physical and mental disorders in children whose mothers drank alcohol heavily during pregnancy. FAS is characterized by abnormal facial features, growth retardation, and central nervous system problems. Individuals with FAS may have difficulties with learning, memory, attention span, problem solving, speech, and hearing. They can also have problems in school and problems getting along with others. FAS is an irreversible, lifelong condition that affects every aspect of an individual's life and the lives of his or her family.

For more information, see the tip sheet on Alcohol Use and Pregnancy.

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Who's at Risk?

About one out of 1,000 live-born infants in the United States has FAS. Two to three times that many are born with an alcohol-related developmental disorder, but they do not have any obvious physical abnormalities.

Most people with FAS will never be able to live independently. It has been found that 60% of those 12 years of age and older have been kept out of school at some point; 60% have been in trouble with the law; 50% have been confined; and 50% have exhibited inappropriate sexual behavior.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. FAS is completely preventable. However, because alcohol-related damage to the fetus occurs early in pregnancy, a developing fetus can be damaged before the mother knows she is pregnant. Therefore, women should avoid drinking if they are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or at risk of becoming pregnant (i.e., sexually active but not using an effective form of birth control). Children with FAS can have serious, lifelong disabilities, including mental retardation, learning disabilities, and serious behavioral problems. They are at high risk for psychiatric problems, criminal behavior, unemployment, and incomplete education. These disabilities are very serious, yet some positive factors have been identified to help individuals with these problems. For example, early diagnosis allows for enrollment of the child in appropriate educational classes and provides access to social services that may benefit the child and his or her family.

Children with FAS who receive special education are more likely to achieve their developmental and educational potential. In addition, children with FAS need a loving, nurturing, and stable caretaking environment in order to avoid disruptions, transient lifestyles, or dysfunctional relationships. Individuals with FAS who do not experience abusive households or become involved in youth violence are much less likely to develop secondary conditions than children with FAS who have had such negative experiences.

The Bottom Line

Individuals with FAS can have serious lifelong complications, including mental retardation, learning disabilities, and serious behavioral problems. Although there is no cure for FAS, individuals with the condition can be helped if the syndrome is properly diagnosed, if it is diagnosed early, and if the children are given appropriate special care.

Case Example

John is 21 years old and has FAS. He wants to live independently. However, because of his disabilities, he cannot function as an adult. His mother always has to be nearby to look out for him. He has the social skills, conscience, and emotional development of a child. He cannot drive because he could not pass a driver's test. He cannot handle money and so he cannot go to the store alone. Because of his brain damage, he has poor judgment, short-term memory problems, and problems controlling his impulses. He gets into trouble often, and this frustrates and angers him. He worries that he will get arrested and end up in jail. John also worries about what will happen when his mother is no longer able to watch out for him. (This is a true story. To read more about John's life, visit his Web site, FASSTAR).

  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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