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Frequently Asked Questions

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What is FAE?

There is much confusion about the varied terminology used to describe an individual affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FASD) and other conditions associated with prenatal exposure to alcohol refer to a group of physical and mental birth defects. These birth defects are medical and disability conditions diagnosed by a physician, in partnership with other trained professionals. As we all know, securing a diagnosis can be difficult because the characteristics associated with prenatal exposure to alcohol are often subtle and may go unrecognized or be misdiagnosed or mislabeled. Fetal alcohol effects (FAE) is a term that has traditionally been used to categorized all of those individuals affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol that did not meet the criteria for fetal alcohol syndrome (FASD). FASD is a medical diagnosis that requires the presence of the following four criteria:

1. Delayed prenatal and/or postnatal growth (resulting in height and/or weight below the tenth percentile).
2. Central nervous system abnormalities (e.g. small head circumference, developmental delay, intellectual function delay, mental retardation, attention deficit disorders).
3. Characteristic facial features including short palpebral fissures (small eyes), abnormal philtrum (groove above the lip), and thin upper lip.
4. Reasonable knowledge that individual was prenatally exposed to alcohol.

While it is often assumed that other alcohol-related birth defects, including FAE are less severe than FASD, this is not always the case. Most often individuals with other alcohol-related conditions do not have the associated facial features. However, they can have neurological abnormalities, delays in development, intellectual impairments and learning/ behavior disabilities or other types of CNS impairment. Often times FAE is more severe than FASD and the lifelong impacts can be greater.

In an effort to begin clarifying this confusing terminology, a new term has come to the forefront—Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). FASD is the most recent attempt to more clearly capture the essence of the clinical problem, acknowledging the reality that prenatal alcohol exposure causes a wide range of effects. FASD has three subtypes: fetal alcohol syndrome (FASD), partial FASD and alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND).

The most important thing to remember is that alcohol is a teratogen and can cause lifelong, permanent birth defects for any child exposed to alcohol prenatally. The effects for each individual are varied due to the tremendous variability associated with consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. The more we learn about FASD, the better we can serve those already affected and the better our prevention efforts will be.

Posted Fall 2001