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Fetal Alcohol Disorders in ADHD Clothing

Many of you have followed–and been outraged by–the “breastfeeding while drunk” case.

But we all know that being drunk while pregnant is a gigantic “no-no”. A new study shows that fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are often misdiagnosed as ADHD. Both disorders have a number of similar symptoms: very limited attention, physical restlessness and extreme impulsivity.

But in some ways, FASD seems to be a bit more like another spectrum disorder: ASD. And now a study from the University of Toronto claim that we’re confusing disorders.Sufferers of fetal alcohol disorders have a problems distinguishing social cues and processing emotions. They are certainly not “just like” those with autism spectrum disorder, but they seem to be somewhere in the middle of children with ADHD and those with ASD.

And that can be a problem, say researchers, because we end up treating their problems improperly.Study author Jane Rovet had this:

Our findings show that … overall, children with FASD have more severe behavioral problems. In terms of social cognition and emotional processing, the core deficit in FASD appears to be in understanding and interpreting another’s mental states and emotions…

It is imperative that these children receive assistance in social and emotional processing domains, specifically targeting interventions to deal with their unique deficits.

Researchers closely studied three groups of children: 33 children with FASD, 30 children with ADHD and 34 children considered “normal controls” and focused on their social cognition and emotion-processing abilities. They found that children with FASD exhibited issues with social cognition, which could perhaps lead to other problems, especially in the social behavior realm.

The study appears online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and will be in print in October.

External resource for help with alcoholism: http://www.axisresidentialtreatment.com/alcohol-rehab/

Source: Forbes.com

Image: Remko van Dokkum on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.


  1. How do we tease apart causation though? Perhaps the women who still drink heavily while pregnant these days are bad at picking up social cues themselves. If she were good at picking up social cues, don’t you think she’d have gotten the message that drinking heavily while pregnant is a huge no-no?

  2. That’s true, except are they unable to distinguish the social norms because they have their own issues similar to that of ASD and that’s genetic, or because they are products of fetal alcohol syndrome themselves? Chicken and egg, I suppose.
    It must be hard to find these kids for the study, too. If they are still in the custody of parents, one of whom did heavy drinking during pregnancy, how much will the mother know about her own mother’s practices during pregnancy? Interesting.

  3. The areas of the brain that help control impulses, understand abstract or complex ideas, understand the connection between behavior and consequences, generalize one’s learning, “get” humor or nuance, “pick up” social cues, understand concepts of time and ownership, focus attention, process sensory information, etc… can be very damaged by alcohol use during pregnancy even without the visible features typical of FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.)

    Most people with FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) have IQs within the average age and they appear completely normal, but they have damage to their brains that affects their learning and behavior. It might be diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, as ADHD or other mental health disorders like Bipolar disorder.

    It might also be that there are co-occurring mental health disorders. (Mom herself has an ADHD or Bipolar disorder and she self medicates with alcohol during her pregnancy so her child might have a genetic ADHD or Bipolar disorder AND a FASD.)

    My husband and I adopted two children with FASD but our oldest was initially diagnosed on the autism spectrum and with ADHD. We received confirmation of his prenatal alcohol exposure and he was diagnosed with a FASD…specifically ARND- Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder.

    Thanks for helping to spread the word about the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy! It can be devastating to live with FASD but the great news is that these disorders are 100% preventable! ~Kari

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