Skip to content
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

What is FASD?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a broad term encompassing over 400 neurodevelopmental conditions. FASD can affect young people in several ways. However, most children diagnosed with the condition go on to experience lifelong behavioural, cognitive and emotional issues.


Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is similar in many ways to lots of other developmental disorders conditions but it also has unique challenges.

Dr Sarah McLean


FASD occurs when an individual is exposed to high levels of alcohol while they are still in the womb and is thought to affect up to 2% of Australian babies every year. Although the range of disorders that fall under the umbrella of FASD is vast, the most common include:

1. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

This is the most severe form of FASD and describes those who are most profoundly affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. Diagnosis for FAS tends to be comprehensive as the signs are very distinct, including specific facial abnormalities such as a thin upper lip and smooth philtrum, lower than average height, and issues concerning the central nervous system.

2. Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)

When someone displays several (but not all) of the criteria for a FAS diagnosis, they are considered to have pFAS. 

3. Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)

Those with ARND do not have the growth issues or facial abnormalities associated with FAS. However, they do have some of the neurological issues associated with the disorder including learning difficulties, behavioural problems, and brain or nerve abnormalities.

4. Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

ARBD occurs when certain organs or body parts do not form properly in the womb, affecting how well they function. Commonly affected body parts or functions include the heart, bones, kidneys, and visual or auditory faculties. 

5. Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)

Children with ND-PAE experience problems with self-regulation, neurocognition, and adaptive functioning, and often get distressed in academic and social environments. 

Causes of FASD

FASD may occur when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol. This is because alcohol is something known as a teratogen. When teratogens cross the placenta, they can interfere with the development of a foetus and potentially cause lasting damage. Part of the reason that foetuses are so vulnerable is that their livers are not fully developed and cannot filter out the toxins contained in alcohol. This means that the alcohol is free to circulate throughout the bloodstream of the foetus, harming the brain and damaging the baby's nervous system. 

It should be noted that drinking in pregnancy does not automatically lead to FASD. For example, if a woman is unaware of her pregnancy during the first trimester and drinks moderately, the risk of FASD occurring is relatively low. However, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption at any point in the pregnancy, so women should be helped to remain abstinent. It is also worth noting that birth mothers should not be blamed for FASD, as this can be stigmatising and counterintuitive. Extensive research has shown that the primary causes of the disorder including poor advice, alcohol dependency problems, pressure from partners, and mental health issues.  

Symptoms of FASD

Physical abnormalities:

• Distinctive facial features such as a thin upper lip and small eyes
• Limb deformities
• Slow growth and low weight
• Hearing and visual problems
• Heart defects
• Bone problems
• Small head circumference

Neurological issues:

• Poor coordination
• Learning and memory problems
• Poor attention span
• Hyperactivity
• Volatile moods
• Poor social skills
• Difficulty with finishing tasks

Living with FASD

There is no cure for FASD. However, early diagnosis and specialist care can help people with the condition to thrive and live fulfilling lives. Interventions may include:

• Early specialist help with walking and social skills
• School services to deal with behavioural problems
• Medications to deal with certain neurological symptoms
• Speech, occupational and physical therapists
• Specialist skills and vocational training sessions

It is important if you suspect a child or loved one has or may be developing symptoms of Autism. Red flags to look for do not necessarily mean Autism however, they are there for a reason. We take these warnings seriously and consider all aspects before recommending further consultation with a specialised behaviour therapist or psychologist and a diagnosis can be confirmed one way or the other.


Parents, carers and health professionals provide an insight into the challenges and stigma parents and children have when diagnosed with FASD.

thank you

Autism Adelaide would like to acknowledge the following organisations for their contributions and resources to the Autism community.

We have found the delivery and content on these websites to be informative, easy to read and an excellent resource for unbiased and current opinions.

There is no judgement
just support

Get the information you need first-hand from our clincal director and senior behavioural practitioner Crystel Dix

Chat | Conversation | Support | Advice | Tips | Update | Consultation.

It's your choice to use how you like.


Up to 65% of children with autism do not develop the skills to communicate effectively