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Terri Mauro

If Only Alcohol Did Cause Autism

By November 28, 2007

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Two headlines passed my computer in the last couple of weeks, and I知 still having trouble getting them out of my head. One suggested that alcohol might cause autism. And the second reassured folks that the occasional alcohol binge during pregnancy might not harm a baby.

Now, that second piece of research sounds to me like saying, 添ou can haul off and whack your baby痴 head against the wall a few times before you値l do any significant brain damage. Even if it was true, why would you want to? Why would you ever, ever take the chance?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a 100 percent preventable condition. One hundred percent. Don稚 drink when you池e pregnant, and your child will not get it. This is the sort of certainty parents of children with other disorders crave; it痴 the sort of thing millions and billions get spent trying to determine.

And yet, faced with certainty, people split hairs. Maybe you can drink during this part of pregnancy, or that part, or maybe you can just drink a little, or maybe you can drink a lot once. It痴 like playing Russian Roulette with your baby痴 brain.

Part of the problem, undoubtedly, is that FASD is still a largely undefined ailment. People think it means mental retardation and specific facial features. And it can. But it can also mean a hard-to-classify glop of behavioral and cognitive and social and emotional and neurological misfires, looking a lot like a lot of things and not enough like anything. It can look like an apparently bright child who just can稚 seem to get it together. It can look like wilfull bad choices and self-abuse. It can look charming and clueless, reckless and over-the-top.

And you know, it痴 hard to get a celebrity to stump to stamp that out, maybe because a lot of celebrities look like FASD closet cases to me. Talented, funny, indiscriminately friendly, and completely unable to put together a functional personal life or a responsible spending plan? Mmm-hmm.

Which brings me, circuitously, back to that first headline. What if alcohol really did cause autism Not the sole cause, certainly, not the main cause, but a cause?

Autism is something people think they know about now. And are afraid of. And are willing to go to measures to prevent. Could fear of autism do what fear of misunderstood-personality-mishmash-stew cannot, and get people to really accept that no alcohol during pregnancy means no alcohol during pregnancy?

I'm pretty sure kids with FASD are already being diagnosed as autistic. When we brought my son home at age 18 months, he sure looked autistic. Our neurologist correctly gave him the FASD tag, but I strongly suspect that if we brought him home today, with the heightened awareness and loosened definitions of autism, he'd have been diagnosed with ASD instead.

Certainly autism was the first thing that popped into the mind of a lady who met him in a movie line this summer, and asked in a very friendly way if he was autistic. It was kind of nice, for a moment, to feel that somebody at least thought they understood him.

So maybe, I don稚 know, maybe we could sneak fetal alcohol impairment somewhere on the autism spectrum. One of many points on a line. One of many attention-getting, prevention-invoking points.

Logically, I know that this would not be a good thing. People will take it as blaming the parent, and that never goes over well. And in truth, interventions that work for autistic kids do not necessarily work for FASD ones. So while a fear of alcohol-induced autism might lessen the incidence of FASD in the future, it wouldn稚 do much for the victims who are here already.

Emotionally, though, I値l admit to feeling some Disability Envy. You know what I mean, you with a child with anything other than autism right now -- the feeling that if your kid痴 disorder could get just one-tenth of the attention that autism is getting from talk shows and entertainers and authors and politicians, how much could be done.

Please note, angry commenters, that I am not saying I envy your child his or her autism, or you the struggle of dealing with it. What I envy is your publicity. And your momentum. And the fact that already, I see schools and other public entities neglecting kids like mine to serve kids like yours.

Anybody else wish they could get their kids disability on a bandwagon like that, just for a little bit?

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
November 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm
(1) Anonymous Coward says:

Yes! I too am disturbed by the “autism bandwagon” that so many people want to suddenly jump on. My daughter has cerebral palsy,and when she saw a new pediatrician, the doc actually referred her to a neurologist for suspected autism. I laughed when he said autism, because she at five had better social skills than many adults. But then I wondered how many other kids are being labelled autistic simply because it’s practically en vogue. I miss the good old days, when every child was on ritalin for ADHD.

November 29, 2007 at 12:12 pm
(2) sylrayj says:

I don’t wish Aspergers were in the spotlight. I haven’t been following the Parenting Special Needs kids site for long, but already I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of yelling and screaming about the right way to care for a child who is Autistic. There’s the diet, there’s the specific behaviour modification, there’s eliminating heavy metals in their bodies, and everyone knows their way is the right one.

If there were as much research on Aspergers, would people start yelling at me for doing the best I can? I wouldn’t doubt it.

November 30, 2007 at 10:35 am
(3) Deb Fjeld says:

I feel the disability envy!! It made me laugh out loud when you mentioned it, as I have always felt guilty about wanting my child to have an autism diagnosis. After all, when people find out my children have FASD, half don’t believe it and blame my parenting, another quarter split hairs on the diagnosis (he doesn’t look like an FAS kid) and the other quarter just don’t care either way. I do think that many children diagnosed with autism probably have FASD, as the drinking rates for women are so high and there is still not enough information about FASD to the general population. My own sister, who has watched my children struggle daily, listened to the advice of her doctor and drank wine at wedding. The doctor said it wouldn’t harm her. It was so hurtful to me that she has seen my children and yet denies the harmful effects of drinking while pregnant, and only because she didn’t want to feel left out at a wedding.

November 30, 2007 at 6:44 pm
(4) Rachel says:

Funny – my husband and I always felt so lucky to have a child with “the best disability” – Down Syndrome. No matter how hard things were, we always said, “Well, at least he doesn’t have Autism!”. Then, guess what? He got diagnosed with ASD, too. Hah! On the bright side, now we have funding for a lot of therapies that help with his Down’s deficits, too, so I do know what you FASD parents mean.

July 11, 2008 at 1:17 am
(5) Margita says:

Absolutely. I see some parents of kids with FASD “hoping” to get an ASD diagnosis. Since the first IEP of my child with FAS, I think I might join them. Having PDD-NOS would certainly be a lot more “useful” in terms of getting services than FAS, because FASDs don’t fit any of their neat/ridiculous categories… I’m having serious PDD-NOS “envy” right now, to say the least!

September 22, 2008 at 8:13 pm
(6) Ms. B says:

My child has been diagnosed with PDD-NOS. I should say that he was labeled as a child with PDD, then my own research lead to having this official diagnosis being PDD-NOS. Honestly, I am sort of sick of the celebrities coming out taking about their autistic child, as if their stories are more special or incredible than anybody else’s. Also, since my child does not have “classic” autism (unengaged, nonverbal, etc) it has been an uphill battle sometimes to get services. We all have battles in the raising children with autism. No ways easy.

May 20, 2009 at 12:44 pm
(7) Diane says:

I agree 100%! I have two adopted children with FASD. The invisible disability, the lack of resources, the lack of awareness and the nieviety by many is horrifying! We can all do the math on movie stars who have partied/consumed alcohol and/or had DUI’s and their pregnancies. It would be nice if they would speak up! Instead we have stars creating fear to sell books and make more money rather than donating to help children, treatments and removing stigma of all illnesses that are brain injuries/spectrum disorders and mood disorders (FASD can encompasses all of these). As parents, educators, healthcare providers, politicians, movie stars…we must say NO to any amount of alcohol during pregnancy! We need to assist the families with their struggles while we continue to fund the small amount of money for prevention, education and awareness rather than the millions on treatment for one child so we can once and for all eradicate FASD! Please parents, keep speaking and fighting for our children, perhaps others will join our fight to prevent and educate and the message will resonate throughout the world!

November 30, 2009 at 5:05 pm
(8) Sara says:

I am a parent of an austic child…I think it is hard with any disability. My son stuggles everyday just to make connections with everyday conversation. He is 5. So frustrating that there is no real cure or any real help. The educational system has no clue, and don’t get me started on the DAN doctors out there. I have traveled all over the state of Calif., just for any help!! Not too much help out there for austism. There are special diets, drugs, etc. But, does it cure autism…NO!

December 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm
(9) Lisa Jo says:

actually, according to Dr. Susan Levy who runs the Autism Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (and is a big muckety-muck) – if the symptoms appeared before age 3 and are consistent with an autism spectrum diagnosis, the causes are irrelevant.

What that means, according to Dr. Levy, is that FAS can in fact be a cause of autism. and often is.

Lisa (about.com guide to autism)

December 4, 2009 at 10:49 am
(10) Jane says:

I have often wished my son was diagnosed with ASD, even if it wasn’t true, just because I wouldn’t have to fight so hard for services. I think it’s a crime that ADS gets a child an IEP, but FASD does not. If I’d walked into the school with the ASD diagnosis, I wouldn’t have had to fight for 3 YEARS for an IEP!

November 23, 2011 at 7:09 am
(11) Adrienne Bashista says:

This is PRECISELY how I feel! From the disability envy to the ridiculousness of the argument re: 1-2 drinks during pregnancy impacting the fetus. My son has FASD and we struggle to get him appropriate treatment in school and we get nothing in terms of services besides what we can “dupe” the insurance companies to pay for – I say “dupe” because they don’t recognize FASD, but do recognize all his previous diagnoses, given before his FASD diagnosis. I live in an area of the country that’s rich in resources for the autism community (hard-fought, I realize) – all of which would actually help MY socially delayed, developmentally delayed, cognitively impaired child, but for which we don’t qualify because he doesn’t have “NOS” tacked at the end of his “PDD” diagnosis. I don’t want that for him – it’s not accurate – but it kills me that my kid’s needs are so similar to kids with autism and yet he can’t get those services or therapies. I know, because I called every agency/therapy provider in our area. No dice.
Part of my frustration, too, with the FASD awareness that’s out there right now is it ALL focuses on prevention. All of it. For the millions of kids/families who are impacted by FASD right now prevention is too late – and these are the kids/families who need major supports so that they don’t grow up to go to jail (for lack of cause/effect thinking, “following” behaviors, impulsivity) or become addicts/alcoholics themselves. What we need are better supports for families and individuals, including the recognition that FASDs are a serious health and social policy issue. Yes, prevention, but More SO: family support.

November 23, 2011 at 7:59 am
(12) Deb says:

I was just thinking the same thing about my child’s RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder). No one “gets” it, there is little support out there, most schools discount it when it comes to helping our kids with modifications and IEP or 504 provisions, many Doctors are even clueless, and it is mentally, physically, and emotionally devastating to deal with, especially when your own family and friends (and often even your spouse) turn against you and blame you for your child’s disability. The good news is that the push is on to change the medical diagnosis to “Developmental Trauma Disorder” which will include more of our kids with their various degrees of struggles, but we are not there yet… and in the mean time out under served kids become problem adults.

November 24, 2011 at 12:37 am
(13) Kathy says:

I agree one advantage of having a child with autism is that there is so much awareness that I hardly ever have to deal with rude staring. On the other hand I have always kind of wished he had Down Syndrome instead because then he would at least be social. I have always had a little envy of those who have children with Down Syndrome.

January 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm
(14) Marie says:

Oh yes!
My beautiful little girl has the diagnosis’s of ARND, PDD-NOS, developmental dyspraxia as well as 37 more. The PDD-NOS diagnosis opened so many doors which were closed before. She attends and is thriving in a special needs school, receives all kinds of therapies mostly related to her ability to be social. The medical community here pretends that FASD does not exist here, there are no services and doctors run from it. My child has many birth defects involving her brain (chiari malformation), skeletal (klippel feil and sprengels) and heart (pulmonary artery stenosis and prolonged qt) which are all due to the fact her biological mother was an alcoholic. Sooooo the diagnosis of PDD-NOS is a blessing.

February 19, 2013 at 3:21 pm
(15) Marie says:

I saw on the news today how the government is going to map the human brain. This could be a wonderful opportunity for our kids! If neurologists can discover how our kids brains are different, how alcohol effects the brain throughout pregnancy and we can get on the list of problems they are covering – maybe, just maybe, our kids can get the services and legal protection they need.
I am excited! I see some hope!
Please help! Write your senators, congress people, the White House and the national institute of health! I started with a petition but it needs signatures. If you are willing would you please consider signing it?


FASD is a neurological disorder and we need help!

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