Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or FAS, is a clinical disorder arising from consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Largely known for its physical characteristics, FAS can also cause long-term social and behavioral effects that last a lifetime. This paper will focus largely on the social and behavior effects of FAS, while touching on the physical characteristics that sometimes manifest in patients with this disorder. Early intervention is key not only to helping patients that develop FAS, but also preventing FAS from beginning.
According to Streissbuth et al. (2004), clinical descriptions of patients with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) suggest there are significant problems with adaptive behavior including problems with social behavior. Research suggests FAS leads to long-term problems or effects including maladaptive social or behavioral problems among individuals even if the children are not raised by their biological mothers. According to Streissbuth et al. (2004), in a study of adverse outcomes using life history interview and informants of 415 patients with FAS or Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), for adolescents and adults studied with an age range of 6 to 51, with a median age of 14, roughly 61 percent of individuals presented with difficulty in school, including just under 50 percent reporting inappropriate life outcomes or behaviors (229).

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Prominent Social and Behavior Characteristics of FAS: An in Depth Review

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Adverse life outcomes included problems with drugs or alcohol social coping skills, or psychiatric problems. Among the more commonly reported problems, or long-term effects of FAS included reports of hyperactivity, attention deficits, learning disabilities among children, and intellectual deficits among children or adolescents diagnosed with FAS (Streissbuth et al., 2004).

In another study, the social difficulties experienced by young adults with FAS are compared to children with autism spectrum disorder. In this study, the researchers compared the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder or ASD to FAS, noting both are characterized by social difficulties (Bishop, Gallaghan & Lord, 2007). Although, the researchers note the overall clinical descriptions of ASD and FAS are different. Bishop, Gallaghan & Lord (2007) examine 29 children with autism and 29 with FAS, noting socially inappropriate behaviors and difficulty with peers among both groups. The findings suggest that a propensity for social interaction appears a differentiating factor among children with ASD and FAS compared with those children without spectrum disorders. The quality of social interaction may be a less diagnostically discriminative.

Children with FAS have other distinguishing features that make them unique. These include facial characteristics if exposed to alcohol during a certain time of pregnancy. Some features characteristic of FAS that do not align with social characteristics of FAS include smaller than normal eye openings, a wide and smooth philtrum, and a thinner than normal upper lip. A child may also have a lower than normal birth with, and experience difficulty gaining weight initially. Not all children will experience these problems, however. There are some children that experience developmental delays, although many appear normal initially. Some appear irritable, and may experience sensitivity to sensory stimulation, which may contribute to social difficulty Hoyme, et al. (2005). This may be a result of a strong startle reflect. Still others are diagnosed with conditions that may include central auditory processing disorder, or sensory integration disorder, both central nervous system disorders (Hoyme, et al. 2005).

FAS can result in a wide spectrum of problems in children lasting through adulthood. The adverse effects that drinking has on the developing infant represent a wide array of structural, cognitive and behavioral effects resulting in a complex array of symptoms. While many of these are widely known as physical symptoms, many also manifest as behavioral and social symptoms especially later in life. These symptoms if recognized early however, can be addressed by early intervention specialists. Developmental delays and behavioral or mental health difficulties can be assisted with the help of specialists. FAS is one of the few abnormalities that is however, 100 percent preventable. Education, and intervention are key to helping prevent this disorder.

  • Bishop, S., Gahagan, S., & Lord, C. (2007). Re-examining the core features of autism: a comparison of autism spectrum disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 48(11): 1111-1121.
  • Hoyme, H.E., May, P.A., Kalberg, W.O, Kodituwakku, P. et al. (2005). A practical clinical approach to diagnosis of FAS Disorders: Clarification of the 1996 Institute of Medicine Criteria. PEDIATRICS, 115(1): 39-47.
  • Streissbuth, A., Bookstein, F.L., Barr, H.M., Sampson, P.D., & O’Malley, K. (2004 Aug). Risk factors for adverse life outcomes in fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 24(4):228-238.