At the Hamilton Literacy Council, we often have students with Learning Difficulties.  On one occasion I did meet a young lady with FAS.  We had had a fair number of students with FAS but something about her struck a chord.  As a consequence, I wanted to learn as much as I could about FAS.  I have written, in this blog, some of the things that I learned.  It is not comprehensive, by any means, but it will shed some light on the subject.


It is a term that describes a range of difficulties that may affect people whose mothers drank alcohol when they were pregnant.  It was identified in 1973 but it was only in the 1990s that momentum was built in addressing the problem.  The symptoms present in FAS are at the most serious end of what are known as the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

Alcohol causes brain damage to the developing baby.  There is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy and there is no safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy.  We know that a baby’s brain is sensitive to alcohol while it is developing.  What we don’t know is how much alcohol it takes to cause damage.  Research shows that children whose mothers had as little as 1 drink* a day may have behavioral and learning problems.  Binge drinking is especially damaging to the developing baby.

Making a diagnosis of FAS can be difficult as there are no particular medical tests or procedures available to make such a determination.  In addition, some of the symptoms of FAS resemble those found in other disorders such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Stopping or cutting down alcohol will make the baby healthier.  No alcohol is the best and safest choice for having a healthy baby.  The good news is that there is no gene for FAS i.e. a mother who is diagnosed with FAS will not pass it on to her child, if she does not drink.  The other good news is that biological fathers cannot cause FAS, only the mother.  However, women with partners who drink are more likely to drink themselves.  Approximately 1% of people living in Canada have FAS.

The effects of FAS vary from individual to individual and not everyone with FAS is the same.  However, the common characteristics of FAS are –

  1. Growth retardation – height and/or weight below the tenth percentile.
  2. Distinct facial features – shortened eye slits, flat mid-face, long/indistinct philtrum (the groove between the nose and upper lip)
  3. Permanent damage to the brain – learning difficulties, attention deficit, hyperactivity, intellectual impairment, behavioral disorders.

Children with FAS have difficulty learning the basic academic subjects of reading, spelling and math, with math being the most difficult to master.  They show some degree of language delay.  As they grow older, they become adept at “cocktail chatter” – lots of words with little real meaning and so appear to be more competent than is actually the case.  Problems in processing information can occur at any of the levels of receiving information accurately, interpreting, it, remembering it and then acting on that information.

In Part II we will have a look at some of the problems faced by individuals with FAS and what we can do to help them succeed.

*12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. glass of wine or and ounce an a half of hard liquor


We sometimes perceive people as being ‘different’ from us.  However, we are all different and this quote from Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) – American essayist, poet and author of ‘Walden’ explains it beautifully.