Day 2 of 99 Days to FASDay: What is FASD?

While in many countries, FASD is used as an “umbrella” term to describe the range of effects that can occur in an individual who was prenatally exposed to alcohol, in 2015 Canada adopted FASD as a diagnostic term (Day 25 of 99 Days to FASDay: Diagnostic Categories).  Australia (and I believe France and South Africa) also use Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) as a diagnostic term.

There are different definitions of FASD under the “umbrella term” so it is best to find the one that is used in your own state or country when talking about FASD. Just remember that terms are different for different countries – which also adds to confusion for the public.

According to the CanFASD (Canada FASD Research Network):

Today, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term that describes the range of effects that can occur in an individual who was prenatally exposed to alcohol. These effects can include lifelong physical, mental, and behavioural difficulties, as well as learning disabilities.

Depending on the amount and the timing of alcohol exposure, a minority of infants exposed will also develop a characteristic pattern of facial features, and some will have a growth deficiency. However, those effects are relatively rare and have little impact on day-to-day function. Decades ago, the facial features of FASD received a lot of attention in the press. The presence or absence of facial features depends on whether alcohol was consumed in a very narrow window of time during pregnancy. It does NOT reflect the degree of brain disorder.

The vast majority of people with FASD are not visibly different; you cannot see FASD. Although in a very small percentage of people the face may look different, the important fact is that in all individuals with FASD, the function of the brain is permanently affected.

Alcohol exposure during pregnancy results in changes to the developing brain at neurochemical and structural levels. Often, these changes are not detected until a child reaches early or middle school-age when difficulties at school and at home become increasingly problematic. These challenges can include problems in social communication and attention, motor and sensory problems, memory, and difficulty learning from consequences. As an individual grows, they are also at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

In the summer of 2019 CanFASD released the Policy Action Paper: Toward a Standard Definition of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Canada

In it they indicated  they had been working to create a common definition of FASD for use in a Canadian context. They believe that if all governments, service agencies, and researchers used a common definition of FASD, it will:

  • Reduce stigma, given that many existing definitions are quite harsh and use incorrect or outdated information
  • Increase understanding of the disability
  • Increase consistency in our messaging and reduce confusion
  • Facilitate a change in perspectives to a more strength-based, whole-body approach to FASD , both inside and outside the FASD community

The definition used for the Day 2 graphic is the one created for everyday use, or when a plain language version is needed.

CanFASD strongly recommends that policy makers and service providers adopt the following definition when writing FASD policy or addressing services for individuals with FASD:


NOFASD Australia has adopted the Canadian definition:

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term used to describe impacts on the brain and body of individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol. FASD is a lifelong disability. Individuals with FASD will experience some degree of challenges in their daily living, and need support with motor skills, physical health, learning, memory, attention, communication, emotional regulation, and social skills to reach their full potential. Each individual with FASD is unique and has areas of both strengths and challenges.

From The National Organisation for FASD (formerly NOFAS-UK) in United Kingdom:

Foetal* Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. FASD is an umbrella term that covers Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND), Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD), Foetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) and partial Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS). (In Scotland’s new SIGN guidance they are adopting simplified diagnostic terms – ‘FASD’ with and without ‘sentinel facial features’.) The Department of Health has asked NICE to explore whether these may be used in England.

From Proof Alliance in the United States of America:

Children with prenatal alcohol exposure are at risk of having fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASD is not a diagnosis but rather an umbrella term describing the range of birth defects caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications.

There are many terms under the FASD umbrella, including these medical diagnoses:

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
  • Alcohol Related Neuro-developmental Disorders (ARND)
  • Alcohol Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)

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