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. Here are some examples of challenges can occur in the following areas:

  • Physical – birth defects and motor skills.
  • Mental – cognitive, memory, decision making.
  • Behavioural – trouble getting along in the world, angry outbursts.
  • Learning – poor school performance, trouble with abstract thinking.

Getting an early diagnosis and the right supports helps people with FASD.

The Canadian Diagnostic Guidelines for FASD were revised in 2016. There are now two categories of diagnoses available in Canada:

  • FASD with Sentinel Facial Features.
  • FASD without Sentinel Facial Features.

The sentinel facial features are three features on the face that indicate a child has been exposed to alcohol in pregnancy:

  • Short palpebral fissures (shortened opening between the eyelids).
  • Smooth philtrum (smooth groove in the middle of the upper lip).
  • Thin upper lip.

Most people with FASD do not have the sentinel facial features because they were not exposed to alcohol during the short time (3 days) in pregnancy when their face was forming. However, the sentinel facial features are very predictive of alcohol use in pregnancy. As people get older, the facial features usually become less noticeable.

Having the facial features present is NOT related to the severity of brain damage. If a person does not have all three sentinel facial features, the diagnostic team must confirm that alcohol was used in pregnancy in order to make a diagnosis of FASD (Cook et al., 2016). FASD is known as an invisible disability because you can’t tell if someone has FASD just by looking at them.

People diagnosed before 2016 may have received a diagnosis of: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS), Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND), Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) or Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD).