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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) – The “invisible disability”

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Artwork by Harrison Riley – Behaviour Support Practitioner at Challenge Community Services

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is sometimes referred to as the “invisible disability”. FASD is an umbrella term that is used to describe a range of disabilities and diagnoses that can result from prenatal alcohol exposure. The disability often goes undetected, as it often does not present in any outward physical signs (1). Sometimes it is overlooked, ignored, attributed to another cause or even simply blamed on ‘poor’ parenting or the environment the child is living in. FASD is often not noticed until the child reaches school age when behavioural and learning difficulties become more evident.

Red Shoes Rock Day, September 9th is FASD Awareness Day. It is to raise awareness in the community of what FASD is and to celebrate the strengths of individuals impacted by FASD.

FASD is a condition that is an outcome of alcohol exposure during pregnancy. Alcohol can cause damage to the unborn child at any time during pregnancy.

The effects of alcohol on a fetus include:

  • harm to the development of the fetal nervous system, including the brain (brain damage)
  • under-nourishment of the growing baby
  • in some cases, it can cause changes in the development of the baby’s face, resulting in certain facial features.

The majority of individuals who have FASD live with significant cognitive, behavioural, health and learning difficulties, including problems with memory, attention, cause and effect reasoning, impulsivity, receptive language and adaptive functioning difficulties. These difficulties are lifelong and have a significant impact on behaviour. Positive outcomes can be achieved when parents/carers and service providers are supported to understand the individuals behaviour as a symptom of their brain damage.

The lifelong effects on individuals can include:

  1. Behaviour: such as problems with social skills, mood swings, impulsive actions, dislike of change, inappropriate expression of emotion, repeated mistakes, and vulnerability to peer pressure.
  2. Cognitive: Such as memory problems, slow in processing information, impaired executive functioning, poor receptive language skills, difficulty with connecting cause and effect
  3. Sensory: Over or under sensitivity in taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing, proprioception and/or vestibular input.
  4. Physical: Such as poor balance and coordinator, weak heart, frail bones, auditory impairments, or slow to meet developmental milestones.

Help with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

A person with FASD can be assisted by programs to help them with their learning and behaviour. Such assistance can enable a person with FASD to maximise their independence and achievements. Treatment programs are individualised and are usually coordinated by a developmental paediatrician. A wide range of educational and behavioural strategies have been shown to be effective in children with FASD, and stimulant medication may be helpful for the management of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

At  Challenge Allied Health, our experienced allied health clinicians support individuals, including those affected by FASD. Give us a call on 1800 795 441 to find out more about our therapeutic supports available.


Here are some useful fact sheets to help you get started with the assessment and diagnosis process and in seeking early intervention.

The fact sheets contain a range of questions that your health practitioner may ask you in order to build a case history for your child.

The following fact sheet provides a useful summary of the common behavioural characteristics of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) across the lifespan. This fact sheet may be useful to share with school communities and other service providers.

The following fact sheets provide information on common Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) behaviours and consequences. We have included a range of strategies and environmental accommodations that may help to improve quality of life outcomes.


(1) Andrew G. Riley E, Sterling C, Weinberg J, Jonsson E. Diagnosis of FASD: An Overview, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Management and Policy Perspectives of FASD, 2011Weinheim, GermanyWiley–Blackwell(pg. 127-148)

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