Breaking down stigma of FASD

How much do you know about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)? Even if you’re an Australian health professional, your answer could be ‘not much’.

Perhaps you know that alcohol causes FASD – and that there is no safe amount, or safe time during pregnancy, to consume alcohol.

But did you know that FASD affects more Australians than Downs syndrome, spina bifida and cerebral palsy combined?

FASD is a lifelong disability characterised by learning difficulties, memory problems, impulsivity, difficulties with social relationships and physical impairments.

Given the seriousness of these symptoms, why do so few health and community service professionals feel equipped to identify or respond to FASD?

Unfortunately, there has been little content on FASD in Australian undergraduate health degrees, and most health professionals have not had appropriate training in the condition.

That means many Australians with FASD, and their families, aren’t getting the support they need – which is alarming.

People with FASD are more likely than others to need disability, mental health and community services. They are over-represented in the out of home care, justice, and homelessness populations.

Diagnosis can also play a preventative role. Research has shown that identifying FASD can lead to better support for mothers in their future pregnancies, decreasing the chance of future alcohol exposed pregnancies.

So what can we do to support people with FASD and their families?

Firstly we can challenge stigma and blame related to FASD. There are many reasons why a woman may consume alcohol during pregnancy.

Given around one third of Australian pregnancies are unplanned, many women drink alcohol before they know they are pregnant.

Also, despite clear health guidelines, there is still misinformation in the community about alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Irrespective of why a fetus may have been exposed to alcohol, a ‘no blame, no shame’ approach is vital, so that women feel comfortable to talk.

We can also step up when it comes to training and diagnosis.

Ensuring Australia has health professionals located all over the country – including in rural and regional areas – with the training and skills to support people with FASD and their families is critical.

Victorian health and community service professionals can register for a free webinar on 9 September:

But every state and territory can play its part. Start conversations, reduce stigma and shame, and create training opportunities for health professionals. FASD deserves our attention.

This article was first published in Australian Community Media.

A recording of the webinar, Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD): A free online seminar for the health and community sector is available on La Trobe's website here.