FASD is a Brain Based Disorder
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FASD is a Brain Based Disorder

It is absolutely essential that educators and parents understand the kind of brain damage found in FASD before they can start to understand the behaviours of children and adolescents with FASD and be successful in working with them.

FASD brain damage is considered to be permanent at the present time.  However, research is being conducted on the plasticity of the brain and its ability to repair itself.  To date there is no proven research that the damage done by alcohol prenatally can be reversed.

Brain Damage or Brain Differences

Their brain works, but differently.  Acknowledge the link between the brain and behaviour.  Behaviour is brain-based, when the brain is damaged the behaviour is atypical-don’t waste your time trying to change it. FASD is a PHYSICAL DISABILITY, and it usually has few outward signs.

Change the Environment not the Behaviour

Always ask yourself, “what if this behaviour is a symptom of a physical disability?”  This is called “re-framing the behaviour” and is crucial for any success with students who have FASD.  They are NOT behaving like this on purpose.  It is that they WON’T (do something), they CAN’T do it. (D. Malbin)

Brain Areas Often Damaged in Those with FASD


Primary Effect of FASD

Primary Effects of FASD are those effects caused by brain damage from alcohol.

  • Information from the 6 senses does not get into the brain correctly.
  • Information is not is not sorted properly once it is there.
  • Information is not stored properly once it is there.
  • Executive function (decision making) on the stored information is defective.

A Representation of the Brain Damage in FASD

Brain Damage

Normal brain development is complex, orderly, and sequential. Rich neural networks provide mechanisms for basic abilities: Storing, remembering, integrating, and retrieving information.


FASD: There is often undergrowth, overgrowth, gaps and tangles. Fewer cells, the brain structure and chemistry may be altered affecting basic cognitive abilities and sensory responses.

© Diane V. Malbin, MSW FASCETS. Used with permission.

Click here for more information on Sensory Processing Disorders in the Classroom

Unborn babies whose brains sustain a little or a lot of alcohol damage during the pregnancy usually grow up to be children who don’t fit well in the school systems of the 21st century. This “poor fit” is usually displayed in one of two ways. The first variation is very disruptive and erratic behaviours which resist all the traditional approaches for control that have been used by schools. Frequently these students are diagnosed as having ADHD.  The second form is a quieter version of alcohol-related brain damage. This looks like ADHD and these children are often labelled as having ADHD instead of FASD.  These students tend to “tune out” and are basically unavailable for instructional purposes. They slip away and tend not to be properly identified at school as teachers spend most of their time on the more disruptive students in an effort to keep their classrooms calm enough for most of their students to be able to learn. 

Remember that students with FASD cannot help being the way they are. They were born that way. It is not that they “won’t” behave in a certain way; they actually “can’t” behave in the socially acceptable way that educators depend upon for teaching success.  Rewards and punishments and attempts at “behaviour modification” are unsuccessful with these brain-damaged students.

There is no doubt that the brain damage of FASD has very serious effects on the ability of schools to educate children efficiently and perform well on standardized tests.  Click here to see what FASD brain damage looks like at school.  There is a list of what skills are needed and what deficits do children diagnosed under FASD have.

We need to change the strategies we have been using for centuries in schools for students with neurobehavioural problems such as FASD. These common strategies will actually harm the student with FASD and they tend to lead to the development of Secondary and Tertiary Effects of FASD.

Click here to learn more about The Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Effects of FASD.

FASD at school is difficult to handle but certainly not hopeless.  When educators and parents work together and accept that these children have broken “neurobehavioural machinery” and that it is hard work and thinking differently that changes the behaviours success will be recognized.  Success depends on seeing these children as “hurt or broken” rather than “bad” and then focusing on helping them learn to accommodate for their brain damage for the rest of their lives

Developmental Resource Centre Waterloo RegionSunbeam Centre