I never really understood what FASD was until I started fostering. What am I saying? I’d never heard of it, never mind understood it! Yes, I knew that drinking while pregnant could harm your baby but what does that mean? How does it present? I had no idea and never gave it any thought. Well, other than to not drink while I was pregnant. So over 20 years passed between my son being born and me starting to foster and still I never read anything about FASD, never knew anyone with the diagnosis of FASD. Even during my fostering training, if mentioned at all, it was in passing. Until my gang of three arrived and I had to start reading up. I was given one online leaflet through my agency and it was worth its weight in gold. It was the beginning of the most marvellous and frustrating journey. So, what is FASD? It’s simple. It’s damage caused to the brain and body of a baby when alcohol is taken during pregnancy. Permanent damage. There is no fixing it. In fact, as the child gets older, the difficulties become more apparent.

Alcohol is a teratogen which can cause any type of physical malformation, as well as learning and behavioural challenges. Most common physically are the stature and facial features, small with specific facial features. However, around 90% of those affected do NOT have these features and, it seems, this makes diagnosis difficult. Also, admitting drinking during pregnancy is hard, there is stigma attached to that. How many of us drank before realising we were pregnant? I know I did and now I know how lucky my son was. If he had had difficulties in school or developmental delays or socially struggled or had poor impulse control or ...well, you get my gist. You see, FASD is a spectrum like many other disorders and, unless I was asked directly “did you drink alcohol at any point during your pregnancy?” I would have never thought my drinking pre positive pregnancy test did harm. After all, I never drank alcohol once I found out I was pregnant and I rarely drank anyway. So that was 6 to 8 weeks of Russian roulette with my baby’s future.

Getting a diagnosis is hard. Parents of children with FASD are often adoptive or kinship/foster carers and prenatal exposure to alcohol has to be proven. Statistics are so high in the care sector, it is being proposed that a FASD diagnosis is a given and has to be ruled out and not in. Makes sense to me. A FASD trait is the child hides their difficulties. It is the most remarkable thing. My daughter can appear to know exactly what is going on and to be having the time of her life. The strain that puts her under cannot be exaggerated. She needs to be retaught things as information just slips away as if it’s never been. So, one day she can, for example, read the menu when out to dinner. The next day, she needs prompts and guidance, this could be because her reading skills are less this day than yesterday or because the menu is different and she struggles understanding different environments. These things lead to misunderstandings and even accusations of ‘faking’. Can you imagine how difficult that makes the school environment? Especially when the education system barely nods at FASD. We were very lucky. Most teachers we dealt with were willing to learn about FASD. Sadly, this is not the case for most families dealing with it. Some stories I have heard are heart breaking. All through the school years, educators struggle with FASD because they have very little knowledge of it.

Just one more point I’d like to make. FASD is not new. Difficulty getting a diagnosis is not new. If you know an adult who struggles with managing their life and you know something is just not quite adding up, think maybe FASD. If someone is not learning valuable life lessons and always in trouble and you are so frustrated with their constant lying and poor choice of friends - don’t rush to judgement. Think outside the box. That's what someone with FASD does.

Marina Campbell