Two headlines passed my computer in the last couple of weeks, and Iím 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, ďYou can haul off and whack your babyís head against the wall a few times before youíll do any significant brain damage.Ē 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. Donít drink when youíre pregnant, and your child will not get it. This is the sort of certainty parents of children with other disorders crave; itís 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. Itís like playing Russian Roulette with your babyís 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 canít 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, itís 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 donít 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 wouldnít do much for the victims who are here already.
Emotionally, though, Iíll 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 kidís 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 kidsí disability on a bandwagon like that, just for a little bit?Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images