September 9: Fetal Alcohol Awareness Day

September 9 is Fetal Alcohol Awareness Day. At 9 a.m. the bells of the St. Augustine Cathedral in downtown Tucson will ring, so we can remember on the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month not to drink alcohol during the nine months of pregnancy.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is entirely preventable.

I became aware of fetal alcohol syndrome the way many parents do — by dealing with a child affected by a mother’s drinking while pregnant. I had to learn about it to parent my son, who had come to me when he was 7 years old, and who, in his teens, had regressed in his emotional and cognitive functioning. I needed to understand the outbursts that resulted in holes punched or kicked in the walls; broken mirrors, broken windows, broken china; stolen jewelry, my winter jacket that I saw walking down the street worn by his friend, who had given money for it; the daily swearing and the inability to understand that his behavior had consequences.

What is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the leading cause of IQ scores below 70 in this country (though most people with FAS have normal intelligence), and is entirely preventable. You have probably seen ads talking about the importance of not drinking during pregnancy. But it is not only women of childbearing age who need to be educated. Doctors, especially ob/gyns and pediatricians, teachers, and social workers — everyone who works with children, in fact — need to learn about the effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol. Also judges, probation officers, and others working in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems need to be educated; most of them have quite a bit of contact with the victims of fetal alcohol exposure, whether diagnosed or not.

What are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD)?

FASD is a spectrum of neurological disorders. Alcohol passes easily through the placenta into a fetus’ bloodstream. Depending on many factors, including the kind and/or frequency of drinking, and the stage of fetal development when drinking occurs, symptoms can include abnormal facial characteristics, serious medical conditions, and an array of behavioral symptoms including hyperactivity, poor impulse control, learning disabilities, and memory problems. The corpus callosum, which is the membrane connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain, is almost always damaged. Not surprisingly, sequential thinking and such concepts as cause and effect, and action and consequence, are also generally compromised to some degree. Frequently co-occurring conditions include attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance abuse, depression, and criminal behavior.

Much of the education about FASD comes from parents of children with the condition. Many of us adopted our children, and many are birth parents who have become sober and live with guilt that is hard to imagine. As parents face the difficulties of raising children with FASD, they face the additional challenges of working with professionals whose knowledge of the disorder may be minimal or nonexistent. Parent-to-parent support and learning are vital to many of us. Many experts in the field are also FASD parents. This is truly a grassroots endeavor.

So as we make choices about our lives and our bodies, about whether or not to have a child, and about when to have a child, let us remember to choose a healthy life for our child as much as we are able.