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This September marks the 17th anniversary of international Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Awareness Month.

In 1999, due to a lack of public awareness and available resources, frustrated family members and parents organized a movement to bring awareness to FASD. The ninth minute of the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month of 1999 was chosen as the first official FASD Awareness Day to remind the world that alcohol should not be consumed during the nine months of pregnancy.

September is also “back to school” time for many students, and children with FASD will face profound educational challenges.

Families should know that no amount of alcohol at any time during pregnancy is considered safe. Of all the substances that a person may abuse, alcohol has the most damaging effects to the developing fetus, at any stage during a pregnancy—including the earliest stages, which may be before a woman actually knows she is pregnant.

Exposure to alcohol causes irreversible brain damage to the unborn child. One does not simply “outgrow” FASD, and the challenges of a child born with FASD become more evident as the child matures.

Inevitably, these children face far more struggles academically than the average student. FASD may cause a wide range of behavioral problems and cognitive problems that may affect a child’s ability to successfully perform in school. Research has shown that students with this disability may have attention deficits, impulsivity, tantrums, outbursts, memory problems and problems learning in general.

Although alcohol exposure during pregnancy may have negative effects on the development of any part of the brain, the frontal lobes seem to suffer the most damage. The frontal lobes of the brain control behavior and judgment. The child’s ability to control his/her behavior can be very inconsistent, and it is often difficult for others to comprehend that the child simply cannot help it.

The brain damage he/she has experienced drives these behaviors, making typical interventions fruitless. Children with FASD also often experience problems socially because they may not pick up on social cues from others. They are unable to consider the consequences of their actions and have an extremely difficult time controlling their impulses.

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Deciding if a child has FASD can often be challenging and may involve many different tests and criteria. To complicate matters, other disorders have similar symptoms.

Yet without recognition and understanding of FASD, an affected child’s academic career poses many obstacles. Early diagnosis and intervention is the key to success for those affected by prenatal alcohol exposure, as well as having the proper supports in place within the classroom.

Consuming alcohol during pregnancy remains the leading cause of intellectual and developmental disabilities, despite the fact that it is the only disability that is 100 percent preventable. An estimated 40,000 babies in the United States are born each year with FASD.

But, this number could be zero; none of this has to happen. Women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant should remember this message: “nine months, zero alcohol.”

Resources for families and educators are available at www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/educators.html.

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Sunny Burford is the family education specialist for The Arc of Cumberland & Perry Counties (CPARC) and member of the Cumberland-Perry Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.

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