An Invisible Disability

Which Disability is the most prevalent in North America: Down syndrome or spina bifida? Autism or cystic fibrosis? None of the above. What about muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy? Nope, not those, either.

The most common congenital disability in North America is largely unknown, despite its disabling effects on thousands of babies each year.

The Van Zwier* family didn’t know about invisible disabilities when they adopted a beautiful blue-eyed, blond-haired toddler. All their love, Christian education, and work to create a wholesome environment seemed to have no effect on their daughter as she grew up, piling up one school suspension after another and finally ending up in trouble with the law.

The Smiths were in a similar state of ignorance when their son, a handsome and apparently healthy 11-year-old, sexually molested a younger sibling and, even after Christian therapy, later molested a neighbor child.

And the church eventually gave up on Scott Vanderklet after his financial woes fell into a predictable pattern of spree-spending each time cash came his way.

Wait a minute—we were talking about disabilities, weren’t we? What do disabilities have to do with behaviors like those?

The answer lies in a well-known toxin and in a specific part of the brain it contacts. That toxin is alcohol and the brain area is the frontal lobe.

Adults display predictable behaviors when alcohol overtakes them—they may forget their manners, relax their morals, or entertain grandiose notions. Chronic alcoholics shed their responsibilities and lose their grip on reality. But babies? Babies don’t drink, so how could they be disabled by alcohol?

Tens of Thousands

Society has coined the term “crack babies” to describe the shivering, underweight infants born under the influence of drugs. The rush of cocaine through their little bodies leaves them weakened and unhealthy. But “alcohol babies” suffer damage that is much more permanent and disabling.

As alcohol passes freely through the placenta and directly into an unborn child’s brain, it chemically burns away cells that govern logic, reasoning, and self-control. Depending on the amount and frequency of alcohol exposure and the child’s stage of development, the damage can be slight or it can be completely devastating.

There are tens of thousands of “alcohol babies” among us, most of them with no visible signs of their disability. They may be small in stature or have facial features that are slightly unusual. Then again, there may be nothing at all unusual about their appearance. But the damage to their brains starts drawing attention as they grow older. They usually have

  • trouble with self-control, leading to problems respecting limits, persons, and property;
  • trouble with logic and mathematics, leading to the inability to handle money;
  • trouble with memory and reality, making it difficult to be seen as reliable tellers of facts.

Which skills are missing depend on which part of the brain is chemically burned during its tender growth. Living without those skills is like trying to use a computer with a seriously flawed operating system.

Tragically, the damage is irreversible. At this time, coping mechanisms are all that can be offered in the way of hope to alcohol babies.

Tough Questions

What does it mean to home, church, school, and community to realize that many criminals, “down-and-outers,” and sex-trade workers are prenatally brain-injured people? How does God view their responsibility for what they do? What can Christians do to help such people? And how can we prevent the increasing numbers of alcohol-related brain injuries?

Those questions are a long way from being answered. Since prenatal alcohol disability (often called FASD, or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) has been clinically studied for only a few years, there isn’t a lot of information available to assist in diagnosis or treatment. What we can address right now is prevention. But advice to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy often falls on resistant ears. Adding to that the fact that up to half of pregnancies are unplanned leads to the even more unpopular conclusion that sexually active women of childbearing age should avoid alcohol entirely.

Whatever decisions are made at the individual level, it’s time to take the alcohol-and-pregnancy issue out of the shadows and into the public forum for education and examination. Our homes, churches, and communities will be the better for it.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.


Getting Help

If this information about prenatal alcohol brain injuries describes you or someone you care about, there is a lot more to learn. Getting a proper diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is not easy, given that many family physicians were trained before FASD was clinically identified. You should probably start with an Internet search on the subject within your geographic area, entering a topic such as “FASD diagnosis—Alberta.”

Alcohol babies can be upbeat people

—loving, exuberant, and gifted. Learning how to cope with their disabilities can be easier if their brain injury is identified at an early age.

Parents of alcohol babies can find a series of helpful teaching tips under “Resources” at www.skfasnetwork.ca.

The following sites are also helpful:

  • www.withchildwithoutalcohol.com (medical facts about drinking alcohol during pregnancy) 
  • www.alcoholbabies.com.
  • www.nofas.org
  • www.faslink.org.
  • www.publichealth.gc.ca (search for “FASD”)

A Word from Scripture

The Old and New Testaments are not silent on the subjects related to alcohol and pregnancy. Consider the following:

  • For pregnant women: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).
  • For people dealing with brain-injured people: “Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14, New Living Translation).
  • For alcohol babies themselves: “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have” (2 Cor. 8:12, TNIV).

Fast Facts

  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 babies are born with alcohol damage annually in the United States—more than infants with spina bifida, Down syndrome, and muscular dystrophy combined.
  • The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that 1 percent of Canadians, or about 300,000 individuals, have some form of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and that 9 in every 1,000 are born with FASD.
  • A recent forum in Illinois put the cost of caring for alcohol babies in that state alone at $741,000 per day (foster care, special education, criminal justice, social services).
  • More than 50 percent of alcohol babies end up in the criminal justice system.
  • Prenatal alcohol brain injuries are 100 percent preventable.

About the Author

Joan Rinker is co-chair of Alcohol Babies Anonymous, a Christian response to FASD. She attends Providence Christian Reformed Church, Beamsville, Ontario.

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