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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a leading cause of preventable developmental disability worldwide. FASD refers to a group of conditions that can occur in a person who is exposed to alcohol during their mother’s pregnancy. Abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy is the safest way to prevent FASD.

What Is FASD?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a range of conditions that may occur in an individual who was exposed to alcohol in the womb. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can result in lifelong disabilities related to behaviour, learning and thinking, and physical development in the child.

Each individual living with FASD has their own strengths and challenges and may require special support to help them succeed in different aspects of their daily lives.

Signs and Symptoms

The range and severity of FASD symptoms varies from person to person and may include a mix of issues with how the brain and body develop; thinking, learning and behaviour; and functioning and coping in daily life. Many people living with FASD exhibit no physical signs of disability and challenges with learning and behaviour are commonly misdiagnosed.

A person living with FASD may exhibit:

Physical Challenges

  • Slow physical growth, before and after birth

  • Vision or hearing problems

  • Heart defects and problems with the kidneys and bones

  • Distinctive facial features, including small eyes, a very thin upper lip, a flat nose bridge, and little or no groove or ridge between the nose and upper lip

  • Poor coordination or balance

  • Jitteriness or hyperactivity

Cognitive Challenges

  • Intellectual disability and learning disorders

  • Problems with memory, concentration and processing information

  • Difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving

  • Difficulty understanding the consequences of choices  

  • Difficulty planning or working toward a goal  

Social & Behavioural Challenges

  • Difficulty in school

  • Trouble getting along with others

  • Trouble adapting to change or switching tasks

  • Problems with life skills, including telling time, self-care, managing money and staying safe

  • Rapidly changing mood

FASD Diagnosis

While the physical and mental conditions caused by alcohol exposure before birth are lifelong, early diagnosis of FASD and access to intervention services may help lessen some of the challenges associated with the condition and prevent secondary disability.

FASD diagnosis requires a range of assessments that cover the diversity of signs and symptoms associated with the condition. Diagnosis is often carried out by a team of healthcare professionals, including a physician, psychologist, social worker, occupational therapist, and speech and language specialist.

How to Support Someone with FASD

To support someone living with FASD, you can:

  • Be concrete: Speak in concrete terms and avoid abstract language.

  • Be consistent: Wherever possible, parents and educators should aim to use the same language and strategies.

  • Be repetitive: Reteach often to support memory retention.

  • Keep a routine: Keeping a routine helps reduce anxiety to change.

  • Be specific: Say exactly what you mean and provide step-by-step instructions.  

  • Keep it simple: People living with FASD may become easily overstimulated. It is not uncommon for individuals to “shut down” when overstimulated, at which point it may become difficult for them to focus or retain new information. Simplicity helps.

FASD Prevention

There is no safe level of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy. If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, the safest way to prevent FASD is to abstain from alcohol.

  • Don’t drink alcohol if you’re trying to get pregnant. If you are planning a pregnancy, the best thing you can do is stop drinking alcohol in advance. If you haven’t already stopped drinking, stop as soon as you know you’re pregnant or if you think you might be pregnant. The sooner you stop, the safer it is for your baby.

  • Don’t drink alcohol at any time during your pregnancy. Alcohol can affect the development of your baby at any stage in your pregnancy. FASD is entirely preventable by abstinence during pregnancy.

  • Consider giving up alcohol during your childrearing years if you are sexually active and having unprotected sex. Almost 50% of pregnancies in Canada are unplanned and damage from alcohol can occur in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.

  • Use contraception. If you are not planning a pregnancy but are drinking alcohol and engaging in sex that could result in pregnancy, properly use condoms or other methods of contraception. This will reduce your risk of unplanned pregnancy and help prevent FASD.

  • If you struggle with alcohol, get support before becoming pregnant. If you have trouble with alcohol consumption, talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Together you can work towards a treatment plan.

A partner’s drinking will not cause FASD. However, it can influence the alcohol consumption of the mother.

You can support a pregnant person by:

  • Not drinking

  • Being supportive and present

  • Encouraging them not to drink alcohol while pregnant


Schedule an Appointment

Mushkegowuk Health offers an FASD Program focused on connecting patients and families with FASD diagnostic services and supportive care. Contact our FASD Program Coordinator to make an appointment:

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Resource
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