The current prevalence of FASD in the UK is unknown but researchers suggest that the number of people affected by the condition could be a lot higher than expected, and even more so among looked after and adopted children. A very significant proportion of children with FASD are care experienced. It is, therefore, important to raise awareness of FASD to ensure that all people affected, including the carers of children and young people living in foster care, will be able to seek diagnosis and the support they may need.
Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is the umbrella term for all the various problems that can affect children if their mother drinks alcohol in pregnancy. The disorder occurs because the baby cannot process alcohol as well as the mother can, which means it can damage cells in their brain, spinal cord and other parts of their body, and disrupt their development in the womb.
There has only been one wholescale study that tries to estimate the prevalence of all types of FASD in the UK. It concludes that up to 17 per cent of children could have symptoms consistent with FASD.
Looked after children are thought to have a much higher prevalence of FASD than their peers. This is because after the birth of a child who has an FASD, the mother and child are signified for care and support and, often, the FASD-affected children are placed in foster care because of neglect or abuse.
A baby exposed to alcohol in the womb may have the following problems. These problems are permanent, though early treatment and support can help limit their impact on a child's life.
According to the NHS, an FASD-affected person may have the following:
- a head that's smaller than average
- poor growth – they may be smaller than average at birth, grow slowly as they get older, and be shorter than average as an adult
- distinctive facial features – such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the nose and upper lip, though these may become less noticeable with age
- movement and co-ordination problems
- learning difficulties – such as problems with thinking, speech, social skills, timekeeping, maths or memory
- mood, attention or behavioural problems, lack of impulse control
- problems with the liver, kidneys, heart or other organs
- hearing and vision problems
Diagnosis of FASD can be difficult, mainly because the symptoms are not widely known and may appear similar to other conditions such as autism. Although more severe cases will be more easily identifiable at birth or soon after, some may not become identifiable until the child is of primary school age. FASD is considered to be a hidden disability because most people with it do not have any of the particular physical features associated with it. It is important to raise awareness of FASD to ensure that all people affected, including their carers, will be able to seek diagnosis and the support they may need.
Support we can offer
Additional advice pages and resources
NOFAS-UK are the leading organisation dedicated to supporting people affected by FASD. They have a helpline which can be called on: 020 8458 595 and also offers free and comprehensive online training for parents and carers on how to provide help for a child suffering from FASD. They have also recently published FASD and Trauma – parenting tips for foster carers.
Adoption UK have a number of publications about FASD as well as useful information pages for cares and people affected.
This article by Cook and Mukherjee, FASD researchers, in The Conversation is a useful round-up of where the UK is at in relation to FASD research and policy: https://theconversation.com/how-foetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorders-could-be-a-hidden-epidemic-52835
FASD Network UK is a social enterprise which works with local authorities to offer training and support to foster carers, adoptive parents and birth families who are raising children with FASD.