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What is FASD?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term for severe neurodevelopmental impairments (you may see these as difficulties with physical activities, language, memory, learning and behaviour) that result from brain damage caused by alcohol exposure before birth.

FASD ...

  • The effects may not be seen at birth
  • All people with FASD will have damage to different parts of the brain which can cause structural (eg. small head) and functional impairments which can be physical, cognitive and behavioural
  • Some people with FASD will have other birth defects such as heart and eye problems
  • Although the use of ‘fetal’ may imply that it only relates to babies, FASD has lifelong consequences and can be diagnosed in children, young people and adults
  • People with FASD will have strengths and difficulties
  • Some people with FASD will have distinctive facial features, but most do not
  • FASD occurs in all parts of Australian society where alcohol is consumed
  • FASD is a social issue not just a medical condition
  • No level of maternal alcohol consumption at any time during pregnancy can be guaranteed to be completely ‘safe’ or ‘no risk’ for the developing fetus
  • Some women are at higher risk of drinking and need support from partners, friends, family, health professionals and drug and alcohol workers to stop drinking alcohol when they are pregnant

It is important to get an early diagnosis so that early interventions and support can be provided.

With the right support and early interventions, good outcomes across a range of life goals are more likely to be achieved.

A circle of collaboration between health professionals, the family, school and service providers ensures the best opportunities for people with FASD.

Diagnostic terms for FASD

The current Australian Guide to the diagnosis of FASD refers to FASD as a diagnostic term with two diagnostic sub categories:

  • FASD with three sentinel facial features
  • FASD with less than three sentinel facial features

These are the terms used in Australia, Canada and New Zealand since 2016.

Throughout the website there will be links to information (publications, research & resources) and other websites that will use different or previously used diagnostic sub-categories. The table below shows how the Australian diagnostic sub-categories best relate to the other diagnostic sub-categories.

Current Australian diagnostic sub-categories Other sub-categories used internationally or preveiously used terms
FASD with three sentinel facial features Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
FASD with less than three sentinel facial features Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)
Neurodevelopmental Disorder – Alcohol Exposed (ND-AE)
Static Encephalopathy/Alcohol Exposed (SE/AE)
Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
Neurodevelopmental Disorder Prenatal Alcohol Exposed (ND-PAE)
Neurobehavioural Disorder/Alcohol Exposed (ND/AE)
Alcohol Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE)

Difficulties for babies and young children

  • Poor sucking reflexes
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Irritability
  • Cry often or very quiet and not responsive
  • Strong startle reflex
  • Sensory problems (sound, light, touch, smell)
  • Problems with toileting

Difficulties for children and young people

  • Low IQ (not necessarily an intellectual disability with an IQ less than 70)
  • Social and behavioural problems
  • Delayed development
  • Inability to connect past experiences with present action
  • Repeating the same actions or behaviours in the absence of a rationale for that behaviour or emotion
  • May seem competent and agree but not understand
  • Short attention span
  • Inability to generalise information
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty with organising and scheduling
  • Difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Difficulty with maths, time and money
  • Slow cognitive and auditory pace
  • Difficulty managing time and space
  • Impaired judgment and impulsivity
  • Emotional – angry, frustrated
  • Immature
  • Poor language and communication skills
  • Sensory problems - noise, lighting, pain, cold

Impairments can lead to

Although supports and services may have been provided, not all will be successful. Some people will struggle more than others and despite all the best efforts, for some problems will be ongoing throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.  Impairments can lead to:

  • issues at school and other education facilities (as a result of problems with inattention, maths, memory and lower IQ)
  • multiple foster care placements
  • reduced self-esteem and depression
  • social exclusion and vulnerability
  • inappropriate sexual behaviour (victim and perpetrator)
  • problems with alcohol and other drugs
  • difficulty planning, setting goals, being on time and complying with child protection or legal obligations
  • inability to live independently
  • unemployment
  • poverty
  • trouble with the law

Common difficulties and tips

Ten domains of neurodevelopment (the brain's neurological pathways that influence performance or functioning) are known to be affected by alcohol exposure in pregnancy. The following information links those 10 domains with common difficulties seen in people with FASD and tips for helping to improve skills and manage daily activities.

FASD is not only a challenging disability for people living with FASD, but also for their families. It can be demanding, tough, sometimes isolating and stressful. There are good days and bad days.

Contact NOFASD Australia for information, support and advice


FASD in Australia

An insight into Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in Australia. Learn from the stories of parents & carers along with the health professionals helping those with FASD live fulfilling lives.

Michael and Lina's Story

Michael and Lina are children living with FASD in Australia. Learn about their challenges and their successes when they have the right supports in place.

Watch some videos

Professor Elizabeth Elliott

Story of alcohol use in pregnancy and FASD

NSW Health

FASD Community
FASD Professionals
FASD Youth

Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation

Barkley fights FASD

Telethon Kids Institute

What is FASD?

FASD The invisible disability