Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), an umbrella term for birth defects including fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), may be more widespread in Prince Albert than residents suspect. But the very sensitivity surrounding the issue makes proper figures hard to come by.
“Is it higher in Prince Albert than other areas? I don’t know if there’s any statistics that would back that up,” Family Futures executive director and member of the local FASD Prevention and Support Committee Donna Strauss said.
“We certainly know in Prince Albert that addiction takes its toll, that we have a lot of addiction issues here, and a lot of that is to alcohol. And certainly, we do see in people that the police are dealing with that there is a lot of FAS in folks. They have issues, and we don’t necessarily have all the supports in place here that they need.”
The effects of FASD vary greatly. Common symptoms include growth deficiencies, learning disabilities, problems with motor skills, and damage to the central nervous system.
Individuals afflicted with FASD often experience problems with impulse control, attention, memory and social skills. They may or may not have distinctive facial features.
Despite the threat posed by alcohol abuse, Strauss emphasized that FASD is by no means limited to addicts or oppressed communities.
“FASD is not just a poor person’s addiction issue,” she noted. “We also need to get the message out to all young women of childbearing age, because … most pregnancies are not planned.
“Lots of women of that young age are still partying, and so they’re partying when they’re pregnant — until they know they’re pregnant — and then often they’re making the decision not to. But what are the chances that some harm has been done already? We don’t really know that. So the message has to be broader than people who deal with chronic alcoholism and addiction issues.”
The effects of FASD on the community are evident to staff in a wide range of facilities. Many suspect some individuals have FASD, but the sheer delicacy of the topic renders proper diagnosis difficult.
The message has to be broader than people who deal with chronic alcoholism and addiction issues. - Donna Strauss
“What our experience tends to be is that there are a number of people that we see in our youth programs and in our residential programs, our homeless shelters that we would suspect have FAS,” YWCA CEO Donna Brooks said. “Because it’s hard to get a diagnosis, we don’t know for sure, but we would suspect it. And the reason I think it’s suspected is just because of the behaviours.
“Typically people with FAS have a lot of trouble understanding cause and effect … They have a lack of understanding that this action will result in this reaction. So they can be very impulsive without realizing what the consequences would be.”
Darcy Begrand, a Saskatchewan Penitentiary spokesperson, made similar observations while stressing he was not an expert in the subject.
“There are cases of FASD … in our institution and of the entire correctional service,” he said. “How many, I don’t know. And how many are undiagnosed, I don’t know … It’s a diagnosis that isn’t common. But the signs are sometimes evident.”
Though Strauss pointed to social stigma as a reason for the difficulty of diagnosis, she noted that Prince Albert also lacked proper support services. But having sufficient services requires a certain level of diagnosis, giving the issue a maddening chicken-and-the-egg quality.
“People don’t often want to admit they have a disability,” Strauss said. “You have to remember these people are proud people and they can live very good quality lives, and sometimes admitting that your mom drank or that this is part of your world is a hard thing. But it does cause problems for them unless they learn to learn in a different way.”
Strauss suggested the only long-term solutions were spreading awareness, helping women avoid putting their children at risk, and fighting the stigma surrounding FASD.
“What we have to do is get information out to the general public, so that they are aware of what it is and the effect it has.”