Commentary

FASD: Despite challenges, not an intellectual deficit


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My name is Gayle Young and I work with the Sitka neurodevelopmental diagnostic team. I would like to tell you something wonderful and something hard.

This is the very good part: Many parents are contacting the Team to ask that their children to be evaluated. It is simple–the parents say that they may have used alcohol before realizing that they were pregnant. The children are accepted for evaluation.

It is so easy that there are sixty children waiting now for a diagnosis. We sometimes joke at the clinic that may have to start working the evening shift as well as in the daytime. But the research is clear: a diagnosis at the youngest possible age is one of the strongest predictors for a good life outcome for alcohol-affected children.

And, this is the very hard part: some current statistics are not hopeful. 80% of people with FASD, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cannot keep a job without on-going support. 70% will be confined sometime in their life for mental health reasons, alcohol and drug rehab or for committing a crime. 60% of people with FASD will have trouble finishing high school. And over 50 % will have sexual involvements that could get them into legal difficulties.

So where do we stand in Sitka, at this time? We, still too often, see a FASD-affected person as being the problem rather than having a problem. We continue to focus on misbehaviors as we write our goals rather than seeing strengths and writing plans of care to strengthen those traits.

Here’s a picture to help explain. A paraplegic enters the gym in a wheelchair and we say for him to stand up and make that basket – 8 times out of 10 tries please, accomplished by the end of month.

We get confused and forget that FASD is a physical brain disability that frequently has behavioral symptoms. In short, we still have quite a bit of work to do. We have to get our heads to operate on a different plane when we recognize that we are interacting with a person – child or adult – who may have brain dysfunction. With children we have to begin to support them rather than giving them consequences. With youth, we have to begin to support them rather than giving them consequences. With adults, as much as is possible, we have to support them too.

This is not a situation where those who “tough it out” are the winners. In this game, those who do not have great amounts of supportive scaffolding in every area of their lives frequently disappear off the field.

Would it surprise us to realize that there are hundreds of people in Sitka who are living with brain differences that require continuing support if they are to even remain in the game? Do we realize that FASD-affected children grow up and are FASD-affected adults? It’s enough to cause us to be a little more thoughtful, a bit more kind, more willing to understand differences and support strengths.

This Sunday, September 9, 2012, is International FASD Awareness Day. As much as I have been learning about FASD in the past few years, I hope to become even more aware because people’s lives depend on it.

Gayle Young works with the Sitka neurodevelopmental diagnostic team at Clinic II at SEARHC. Opinions expressed in commentaries on KCAW are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the station’s board, staff, or volunteers.

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