Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. You’ve heard what FASD is from both individual and caregiver perspectives. Now we’d like to share what FASD is from a research perspective.

The definition of FASD

Historically, FASD was hard to define because researchers and clinicians were learning new information about this disorder every day. In 2019, researchers published a common definition of FASD to use in the Canadian context.

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.

This definition helps us understand what FASD is. But it can be a little complicated to understand all at once. So, let’s break this down.

FASD is a diagnosis

FASD is a diagnostic term. It is both an etiologic diagnosis, meaning it identifies the cause, and a functional diagnosis, meaning it identifies the consequences. In this case, FASD refers to the wide range of impacts that can happen to people who were exposed to alcohol during fetal development. Diagnoses like fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) fall under the realm of FASD.

In 2015, the Canadian guideline for diagnosing FASD was updated. People going through the assessment and diagnostic process now fall into one of four categories: (1) FASD with sentinel facial features; (2) FASD without sentinel facial features; (3) at risk for neurodevelopmental disorder and FASD associated with prenatal alcohol exposure; and (4) no diagnosis.

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