Have you ever wondered why NZ has so many thousands of repeat offenders? Those who repeat the same crime, over and over again, while we ask ourselves “Why don’t they get it?” “Why doesn’t the punishment imposed make them realise they shouldn’t do it again, and again?” You will find these same questions are often asked by the Parents and/or support people of someone not yet diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
Many people will know this disorder as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but some years ago the name was changed to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) to include those who may only have minor effects to those who are effected to such a degree, performing the activities of daily living without support is nearly impossible.
In New Zealand, the rate of non-diagnosing, or mis-diagnosing FASD is alarmingly high.
Despite the mounds of evidence going back decades, and the World Health Organisation naming FASD as the ‘leading cause of preventable mental retardation (intellectual disability) in the Western World’ and numerous accounts and warnings from around the World about FASD (just a fraction listed below with links), New Zealand continues to all but ignore this plight that effects an unknown but likely high percentage of it’s population.
“The true rate of FASD in New Zealand therefore could be greater than 5%”
“Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is the most common birth defect in South Africa, by far more common than Down syndrome and neural-tube defects combined,”
“Exposure to alcohol in utero is considered to be a leading cause of developmental disabilities of known causation.”
Estimates show as many as 1% of all children born in the USA may have FASD
“… the lifetime cost for an individual with FASD is about $2 million.”
Not only does this society destroying yet preventable syndrome get little to no recognition by the present and past Governments, incredibly some so-called ‘Health Professionals’, including many GPs, still tell people ‘it is ok to drink moderate amounts during pregnancy’, or even more shockingly that ‘FASD is not a real thing’!
Several years ago I was asked to speak at a conference about the effects of alcohol on the unborn child, with (due to my specialisation) particular focus on the behavioural and learning issues that these victims often have. After I finished my talk, which included warning that there is “no known safe amount of alcohol a pregnant Woman can drink without it effecting her child, according to most research”, I learnt that (incredibly!) the Pediatrician speaking before me, who I had not heard, had just told the crowd of health professionals that (in her opinion) it was in fact ok to drink small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy! This of course goes against all the evidence that shows (in layman’s terms) ‘maybe your child will be ok, maybe your child will not be ok’, why take the chance? What advice do you think the people in the crowd would have remembered? Yes, most would remember what the “professional Pediatrician had said”, after all surely she is the expert? Unfortunately when it comes to FASD, many of these ‘Professionals’ speak with a bias towards alcohol being ok to consume in pregnancy. We can only wonder if the reason they do so is because of their own drinking habits, or those of their family’s, as the majority of research and expert opinion does not back up their advice one tiny bit!
“Because we do not know at what point alcohol damage begins, it is prudent to recommend that pregnant women abstain from alcohol.” (US dept of Health and Human Services)
“The behavioural effects observed indicate maternal alcohol consumption has influenced, possibly permanently, the functioning of the brain and CNS of the fetus and infant. These effects are observed at low levels of maternal alcohol consumption (5-6 units per week) and this raises questions regarding the ‘safe’ level of alcohol during pregnancy.” (Professor Peter Hepper)
“Laboratory studies suggest that a single drinking binge by a pregnant woman can damage for life the brain of her unborn child.” (Dr David Lovinger)
“FASD is considered internationally to be the leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental problems – however, there’s evidence that it’s under-diagnosed.” (NZ Ministry of Health)
The latest battle with FASD, that many who have researched FASD and are aware of it’s lifelong devastating effects on the individuals effected (and their families!) are now fighting, is the ‘P.C.’ (Politically Correct) Brigade’s attempt to stop education and action on FASD with the excuse that “It’s a Woman’s body and she can drink during pregnancy if she so wishes to.” Of course if we were to examine this highly ignorant belief, and come up with a fitting analogy we could also say “It’s a Woman’s right to stab herself in the belly when pregnant, it’s her body”. Of course 99.99% of the population would say ‘that last statement is just ridiculous, and of course that would not be ok’. So in that case, why would it be ok to subject an unborn child to alcohol that is likely to cause lifelong brain damage (though maybe it won’t?).
Any and all alcohol a woman drinks during pregnancy will pass into the placenta and subsequently through into the fetus. Alcohol is of course a toxin to the human body, and while we as full grown adults can filter out this toxin from our blood via our liver (in small to moderate amounts), an unborn child’s body can not process the alcohol so quickly or easily, meaning they are much more likely to suffer the resulting brain damage that alcohol can cause.
The Effects FASD Has on Those Effected?
Firstly, and most importantly, FASD results in irreversible Brain Damage. You can’t “fix” FASD, it is not curable, there is no brain surgery that can reverse the damage, it is there from birth until death. Where as many other drugs that can also effect unborn children do not have such permanent effects and/or debilitating effects, alcohol exposure to the Fetus – can result in permanent and debilitating effects to various degrees.
Some of the more common behavioural and learning issues that will effect a person with FASD are:
Repeating the same problematic behaviour, over and over again, often despite education, punishment, and support from others (I.E, they have extreme difficulty connecting consequences to actions)
Intellectual deficit (often having an IQ of around 70 or below – though quite often not falling into the official category of being ‘Intellectually Disabled’)
General learning difficulties
Particular problems with Maths Skills
Little understanding of time-spans / time
Poor impulse control
Difficulty understanding abstract terms (Taking slang terms literally)
Over 90% of people with FASD will develop mental health problems
60% of children with FASD are suspended, expelled, or ‘drop out’ from school
60% of individuals (over 12 years of age) end up in trouble with the Police
Around 50% of individuals with FASD (over 12) will engage in inappropriate sexual behaviour
80% of individuals with FASD will need some level of assistance from professional support people, friends, or family in living their lives – lifelong
80% of individuals with FASD will have ongoing problems with employment
The Likely Victims In NZ Society?
It is my belief that we have a certain category of mainly younger people who are likely to be made up predominantly by those effected by FASD. I believe this may be so, due to their type of behaviour, and even the physical appearance of many of them (from my observations).
That category is made up by those that are the more problematic and repetitive offenders of traffic crime, who we usually refer to as “Boy Racers”.
Their highly repetitive dangerous behaviour, despite the all too regular reminders of death and destruction that it causes, is an obvious sign that they may be effected by FASD. They drive around in mainly dangerously modified cars, that everyone else seems to realise even on first observation that they are deathtraps waiting to be sprung, yet they see as perfectly ok. They engage in driving habits that regularly kill or seriously injure many in their own groups, or others who become victim to their driving, yet they still repeat the behaviour over and over, week after week, month after month. Despite getting ticket after ticket, fine after fine, they still repeat the same behaviours continuously.
From my observations of this population over many years, a large percentage seem to be microcepahlic (small head size) – a very common physical defect with FASD (smaller heads, smaller brain size), often also displaying narrow eye slits, small build, and have low intellectual functioning. More often than not, if we are to go by the histories we often hear after they have been killed, many have struggled at school, and often appear to come from families where alcohol consumption has been a big part of family life.
Of course the other group that are likely to be made up by a large percentage of those effected by FASD are our Repeat Offenders, and those engaging in cruelty to animals (sometimes the same people). Despite the jail terms the Repeat Offenders are given, time after time they go out and offend yet again, sometimes repeating exactly the same crime numerous times. Those who engage in cruelty of animals often repeat the same behaviour numerous times, despite the obvious heartbreaking cries of the animals being tortured, and the response from the majority of society. The consequences appear to mean nothing to them.
Then there are those children who stand out from the rest at schools around the Country. The constantly disruptive, aggressive, unfathomable children that everyone shakes their head at and asks “What is wrong with them, why don’t they get it that’s it’s not ok to act like that?”. Many of those same children are likely to be victims of FASD, yet no one bothers to follow through with a diagnosis, and put in place appropriate strategies and support.
What Can We Do?
Sadly the ‘what can we do’ question has been answered many times before, the problem is – no one is willing to take the action that is made clear in the answers to that very question.
I Suggest as a minimum we:
Make it an offence for Bar Staff to serve any ‘obviously pregnant’ Woman. Note the emphasis here isn’t on punishing the Woman, as such, but more so helping support her by politely refusing to enable her (sometimes unknowing) potential abuse of her unborn child.
Mandatory Warning Labels on all alcoholic beverages. This should be the very least thing we do as a responsible society, with the warning stating clearly “There is NO known safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed in pregnancy. Alcohol may cause life long brain damage to your unborn child.”
Compulsory education for all Year 10 students, with the ‘Total Abstinence from Alcohol while pregnant, or trying to get pregnant” message being taught, not the ‘it may be ok to drink some alcohol’ dangerous and ignorant ‘advice’.
Set, standardised warnings that GPs, Midwives, and other Health Professionals – MUST give pregnant, or trying to conceive, Women, rather than hoping they may give some sort of half hearted advice.
The Dangers of Continuing NZ Society’s Ignorance?
Simple really, the dangers of continuing on our merry little ignorant way in regards to FASD, are an ever increasing cost on society itself.
Higher support costs for the increasing number of people with FASD (likely to already be in the hundreds of millions of dollars)
More people suffering preventable mental health problems / addiction problems /physical abnormalities
Teachers and schools struggling with continuously disruptive children, who are failing to learn like their Peers do, yet have no definitive diagnosis of what could be wrong
The Continuing suffering of the victims of FASD, and those who support them – lifelong
At this election, ask the political parties representatives “What are you going to do to reduce FASD?” – by doing this in large numbers, we can start making a change for the better.
For further reliable advice and information on FASD, you can go to the following sites:
New Zealand Ministry of Health
Fetal Alcohol Network New Zealand
For Behavioural Resources – www.BehaviourSkills.com
Article written by Trevor Lewis PGDipSci (Psych)