As a parent and a teacher, Emma Phoenix-Kelly, is beginning to realise just how pertinent a problem FASD is becoming for some children living in the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland today…
You might recognise it better as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder. You may know someone who lives with it or even have it yourself. Unfortunately, statistics of just how many cases of FASD there are in the UK is not known. According to the World Health Organisation Bulletin of 2011, studies in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Finland, Japan and Italy state that at least one in 100 children are affected. With our binge-drinking culture in the UK and Ireland, it is surely possible that our statistics are similar.
Of course, it is nearly impossible to get a full picture on FASD, because there is no official ‘test’ that can diagnose it, however there are a list of physical and mental symptoms that do suggest its presence. The other reason it is hard to get to the bottom of just how many children have FASD, is of course because it is understandably difficult to get a woman to admit just how much alcohol she drinks (or drank) while pregnant.
Have you ever asked your female friends if they drank during pregnancy? Did you ask them how much they drank? Or if they binge drank? Most likely not. I know I probably would have been offended if someone had asked me about my alcohol intake when I was having my two little ones. So, how does it happen?
We all have some awareness that what we eat, the baby eats; what we drink, the baby drinks. All the good (and also the bad) ingredients in what we consume are passed to our baby. That might not be the end of the world if you have a curry that’s too spicy, but when alcohol is taken, it passes through the mother’s blood (via the placenta) and into the baby’s. Because the baby has an undeveloped liver, it simply cannot process the toxins. It also can kill brain cells and cause the developing central nervous system to become damaged.
How does it affect the baby after birth? The difficult thing is, it is completely unknown just how much alcohol it is or isn’t safe to drink during pregnancy – so the medical professionals are increasingly saying that the best approach is to abstain entirely from alcohol altogether. In fact, in January 2016 new guidelines were issued by the four UK Chief Medical Officers which clarified that there was no 'safe' limit to drink while pregnant. And most women of course, follow this advice. Unfortunately, some don’t. And there are massive repercussions for those babies born with FASD.
Babies who are exposed prenatally to alcohol in the womb, are at risk of ending up on what is known as the FASD ‘spectrum’; and their issues can range from mild to severe. They may suffer from one or more of the following problems; vision impairment, characteristic facial features, heart defects, immune system weakness, memory problems, hyperactivity, sleep problems, speech and language delay, liver problems, impulsivity, and inappropriate social behaviour.
Many teachers observe these behaviours in the classroom. We have children with these issues sitting in front of us every day – and they are exhibiting what’s known as ‘secondary’ problems as a result of having FASD. Teachers observe mental health issues, school refusal, alcohol and drug problems, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity and memory problems in their students. This really makes me wonder. Perhaps it isn’t always ADHD? Maybe it isn’t always autism? It definitely isn’t them ‘needing a good talking to’ (I shudder when I hear that one). Maybe these young people needed an earlier diagnosis in order for supports and interventions to take place?
FASD is totally preventable but completely irreversible. The damage is done to a baby before it's even left the womb; and if we don’t address the issue, and start talking about it properly, we are setting these children up for a life of difficulty; both social, emotional, physical and mental. These children are having their life sentence decided for them before they are even born, and preventing it could be something as simple as educating women more openly about the issue.
Children who have FASD are struggling daily with poor memory, confusion, emotional outbursts, frustrations with not being able to learn or understand simple concepts in the classroom – and it's so incredibly hard on them. They feel left out and left behind.
We all need to hear more about case studies and examples of children who are living with the disorder, so that we can better prepare for them as our children and our learners. We should be listening to parents of these children and what they’ve learned about their experience of it. The government should be consulting more with health professionals, educators, parents and the children themselves. We should be shouting about this from the rooftops...there’s no shame in it. There should be more help and support available. So what are we waiting for?
For more information on FASD you can visit: drinkaware.co.uk or nofas-uk.org