What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Fetal alcohol disorders are more common than you think

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a possible result from mothers drinking during pregnancy, has flown under the radar for decades. Now new conservative estimates published in The Journal of the American Medical Association show that anywhere from 1.1 to 5 percent of the U.S. population is affected, meaning it could be more common than autism. Amna Nawaz reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a condition that has flown under the radar for decades, sometimes referred to as the invisible disability.

    We're talking about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which can happen if a mother drinks during pregnancy.

    Amna Nawaz reports from Minnesota on the problem and recent research that suggests it may be far more common than previously thought.

    Here's the first of her two stories on the subject.

  • Child:

    That's my feet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Moses looks and sounds like your average healthy 5-year-old. But his dad, Brandon, noticed Moses didn't always act like one. He has trouble with loud noises. He sometimes gets very upset, much more easily and intensely than other children.

    They're at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital to try and find out why.

  • Dr. Judith Eckerle:

    Where should I listen with my stethoscope? Yes, good.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One possibility, Moses might have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.

    Moses was adopted, and Brandon believes his birth mother drank while pregnant.

    Dr. Judith Eckerle specializes in adoption medicine, and sees a lot of families struggling with FASD.

  • Dr. Judith Eckerle:

    We see kids on the FASD spectrum who have I.Q.s above the normal range, actually, so — who are considered very smart, but then they're missing certain other areas, like the abstract reasoning, or being able to control impulses.

    We have other kids on the FASD spectrum who have frank intellectual disability, used to be called mental retardation. And those kids really do struggle with kind of the basic learning and may need support lifelong because, just cognitively, they're not able to process in the same way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Doctors in Minneapolis see around 300 kids in the FASD clinic, but they say that's just the tip of the iceberg. They estimate, across Minnesota, prenatal alcohol exposure affects more than 7,000 newborns each year.

    Nationally, a recent study shows the numbers are much higher than previously thought, cutting across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Conservative estimates, published in "The Journal of the American Medical Association," show anywhere from 1.1 to 5 percent of the U.S. population is affected, meaning it could be more common even than autism.

  • Dr. Judith Eckerle:

    So, the results of the study didn't surprise me, unfortunately, because I do think that there are a lot of children who are undiagnosed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Jeffrey Wozniak says most children with FASD don't get diagnosed, either because people don't know to look for it or don't know what they're looking for.

  • Dr. Jeffrey Wozniak:

    The ones that get referred to our diagnostic clinics are the ones who are having the most problems and are the ones who happened to have been seen by a social worker or a nurse or a pediatrician who knows something about FASD.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Complicating diagnoses, only the most severe cases have any outward physical symptoms, like smaller eyes, flattening between the nose and mouth, and a thinner upper lip. For most kids with FASD, the differences are on the inside.

  • Dr. Jeffrey Wozniak:

    The brain is smaller in the child who has FASD.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Wozniak's pioneering work with MRIs offers an unprecedented look at the brain damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.

  • Dr. Jeffrey Wozniak:

    You can clearly see this abnormality in the back part of the brain. This is the part of the brain that is involved in all sorts of functions, including attention and perception and integration of information. So this is a child we know is going to have a lot of processing abnormalities as a result of this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Doctors say FASD can look a lot like disorders like ADHD. Some symptoms, like hyperactivity, short attention spans and impulse control, can overlap. But the causes can be different.

    Pediatrician Eckerle takes a page from a favorite children's book to explain.

  • Dr. Judith Eckerle:

    Amelia Bedelia was very concrete. She could understand if you said, go draw the blinds, Amelia. She would sit down and draw a picture of blinds, instead of closing them because she didn't know there were multiple meanings.

    And that is kind of an illustration I use sometimes for families. They don't necessarily understand abstract reasoning or abstract concepts as much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is a meeting for teenagers with FASD. Slime-making is one way to draw them in, but it's also a chance to meet with adult mentors, to talk about the future, and to work out how to navigate it.

  • Woman:

    Do you have any final papers or studying?

  • Woman:

    Study for tests.

  • Woman:

    So, maybe — yes, you could do that. Study for an exam.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's also a chance for kids with FASD to hang out together, to feel understood, in a world where they often are not.

    Ruth Richardson is the director of programs for the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the sponsor of this meeting.

  • Ruth Richardson:

    This can also be a very isolating experience for families, because if their family members don't understand FASD or their overall community doesn't understand the disability, we have seen families who are afraid to take their kids to church, because they don't want to deal with the shame or the stigma when people don't understand the disability.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dave Riege adopted Ben when he was 5 years old.

  • Dave Riege:

    Everybody who is here basically has the children with the same problems. I mean, it's not like anybody else at says, well, geez that's just kind of strange, because everybody is in the same boat. So it works out good.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa Joy says the group is good for her son, Andrew, and for her as well.

  • Lisa Joy:

    Parents can come together and get to know and connect to find out what they're doing to help their kids in similar struggles, that what they are doing to overcome them. And just that support is really important.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Even though there is no known cure for FASD, experts say early intervention can help to mitigate the symptoms.

    Moses' dad, Brandon, says he will make sure his son's future will be just as bright.

  • Man:

    We love all of our kids the same. It doesn't change anything. And if that's the official diagnosis, that's something we will work on, to channel him to the right people. And he still lights up a room. He's still the same great kiddo that we see every day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For adoptive parents, an FASD diagnosis, difficult though it may be, doesn't carry with it the weight of any guilt.

    For birth mothers, like Carol Peterson, the process is different. Peterson struggled with alcohol for years and was drinking before she knew she was pregnant. Though she quit cold turkey three months into her pregnancy, the damage to her daughter, Kylene (ph), was done.

  • Carol Peterson:

    I would take her to these early childhood places. It seemed like the ones that were the same age were more advanced than her. So I started to notice she was a little bit, like, delayed, I thought. But I wasn't sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What would you worry about in moments like that?

  • Carol Peterson:

    I would, wonder did my drinking do this to her?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kylene, now 27, was diagnosed with FASD at 6 years old. Carol opened up to us about the guilt she carried for years, and her hope for her daughter's future.

    More of their story tomorrow night.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Northern Minnesota.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest