Information for health professionals

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a major cause of birth defects and brain damage in children. Individuals suffering from it will have various intellectual, behavioural and social disabilities. Find out more about this disorder.


Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term used to describe a range of disabilities resulting from a mother's use of alcohol during pregnancy. It is now the leading cause of non-genetic birth defects and brain damage in children.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder includes:

  • Foetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Partial Foetal Alcohol Syndrome/alcohol-related birth defects
  • Neonatal withdrawal.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

A diagnosis of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is based on a scaled rating of:

  • Physical growth deficiencies
  • Distinct facial features
  • Brain dysfunction
  • Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy.

The more apparent these effects are, the more likely a diagnosis of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. If these conditions are not as pronounced, or one of these variables is not present, the diagnosis may be Partial Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (PFAS).

Partial FAS and alcohol-related birth defects

Alcohol can affect the foetus in ways that are not physically or immediately obvious. Individuals with this disorder have some, but not all the diagnostic characteristics of FAS. They can have significant deficits in behavioural and social abilities.

Neonatal withdrawal

A newborn will exhibit great distress as it withdraws from being exposed to substances while in the womb, such as heroin, morphine and alcohol. Alcohol presents more long-lasting damage.

Symptoms of FASD

  • Child with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Foetal Alcohol Syndrome typical physical traits

Individuals suffering the effects of FASD can look physically normal, but will exhibit signs of intellectual, behavioural and social disabilities.

FASD may present itself in 'typical' behaviour for the age. But in children affected by FASD, this behaviour occurs in grossly exaggerated form and does not respond to conventional treatment or intervention. Typically, these signs according to various age groups are listed below.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers:

  • Pose a danger to themselves and others as they do not understand the concept of 'cause and effect'
  • Deficiency in normal sequential learning abilities.


  • Impulsive, unpredictable and mischievous, causing ongoing safety hazards (e.g. setting fires and running away)
  • Lack of ability to make and keep friends on their own
  • Often disconnected from their own feelings and are unable to identify or express logical reasons behind their behaviour
  • Often isolated and lonely - a desire to be included remains intact, but reasoning skill to figure out why they are excluded is lacking
  • Void of natural empathy for others.


  • Problems with cause and effect relationships, and impulse control
  • Problems with generalising information, and understanding concepts and abstract thoughts
  • Problems with ability to conceptualise, internalise, and structure time
  • Unable/unwilling to take responsibility for actions.

Additionally, as PFAS often goes unnoticed and untreated, individuals with PFAS are at a higher risk of developing secondary disabilities than FAS children. These include mental health problems, disrupted school experience, problems with the law, inappropriate sexual behaviours and alcohol/drug problems.