In the adoption and foster world, we tend to speak and think of prenatal alcohol exposure, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) as affecting children. We don’t often project into the future and talk about what will happen as these kids grow into adulthood. How do adults with FASD fare?

What can a parent expect for the future of a child who has experienced prenatal exposure?

We know that alcohol exposure in pregnancy can cause a host of problems for the child, including birth defects, craniofacial abnormalities, growth retardation, learning differences, developmental delays, behavioral issues, and central nervous system dysfunction. The impact of prenatal alcohol exposure is well researched in children, but surprisingly little research has been done on the impact on these children as they become adults.

We know that prenatal alcohol exposure causes brain damage and brain damage lasts a lifetime, but how do adults with FASD have the same issues as children?

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Impacts on Physical Features in Adults

We have long known that prenatal alcohol exposure can cause physical changes in the children, such as a thin upper lip, smaller head circumference, and growth retardation in height and weight. These physical changes become less apparent after puberty, which makes diagnosing fetal alcohol syndrome in adults more difficult. The limited research that does exist has found that microcephaly (small head size), a thin upper lip, and shortened height tend to persist into adulthood for those who were exposed to alcohol prenatally.

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Impacts on the Brain in Adults

Although the research is not robust, adults with FASD have increased behavioral problems, impaired motor function (balance, motor sequencing), and are less able to focus visually and auditorily. Adults with FASD also have a greater incidence of learning problems. I found it interesting that they appear to have trouble learning new things but once learned, they don’t tend to forget.

Adult in winter coat, only seen from the back
Not surprisingly, many adults who were exposed to alcohol prenatally are struggling as adults—a high incidence of unemployment, difficulty managing time and money, and often not living independently.

Perhaps the hardest disability caused by prenatal alcohol exposure is the difficulty reading and responding appropriately in social situations. This makes it harder for adults with FASD to make and maintain friendships and strong social support systems.

Research has found that among adults with FASD, 90% had mental health problems, 60% had trouble with the law, and 45% experienced drug and alcohol problems.

Not surprisingly, many adults who were exposed to alcohol prenatally are struggling as adults—a high incidence of unemployment, difficulty managing time and money, and often not living independently.

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Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Impacts on General Health in Adults

Once again, there isn’t a lot of research; much of what we know is from research on animals. It appears that prenatal alcohol exposure impacts the immune system in adulthood and may increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

What Can We Do Now to Help Our Kids with FASD as They Approach Adulthood

In addition to the general lack of research, much of the research that exists does not distinguish between people who were prenatally exposed to alcohol and raised in a chaotic/alcoholic home vs. those who were prenatally exposed but raised in a stable family with access to early diagnosis and treatment. Some research indicates that early identification and diagnosis, access to services, and having a stable/nurturing home environment were protective against adverse outcomes. Creating a Family has resources to help you create a healthy and nurturing environment for your child who has been prenatally exposed to alcohol.

Source: Much of the information in this article comes from What Happens When Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Become Adults?
Image credit: Death to Stock Photos; Elisa