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Lasting effects of fetal alcohol exposure

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    Debra Wilkins helps her son Jayden, 10, with his homework Tuesday April 26, 2016, in Toledo , Ohio. Jayden has fetal alcohol exposure and as a result requires help in school.

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Debra Wilkins helps her son Jayden, 10, with his homework Tuesday April 26, 2016, in Toledo , Ohio. Jayden has fetal alcohol exposure and as a result requires help in school.

THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
Enlarge | Buy This Image

As one Toledo woman learned more about the devastating effects of fetal alcohol exposure on her adopted son, she used social media to warn women that drinking can harm their babies.

“When he was probably 2 or 3, I took to Facebook and I implored young women and girls and said, ‘If you are thinking about getting pregnant, please don’t drink.’ It has been probably the most difficult journey I’ve been on with my children,” Debra Wilkins said.

Like many other parents of children whose mothers drank while carrying them, Ms. Wilkins didn’t know right away that Jayden, 10, has fetal alcohol exposure and subsequently, brain damage. Agencies that work with fetal alcohol exposed children and their parents say the damage doesn’t always show right after birth. In fact, symptoms might not manifest until when a child is in school.

Double ARC — a local agency that serves children and families with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASD — said children suffering from such disorders can appear fine, but their memory and judgment skills are adversely affected. Many lack daily living skills, cannot maintain a checkbook or tell time, act much younger than their chronological age, and can seem charming, yet not know how to interact with others.

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The agency — whose acronym ARC stands for applied research and collaboration promoting advocacy and resources for children — helped Ms. Wilkins obtain the correct diagnosis for Jayden and intercedes for him at school, where he requires additional help as a result of his exposure to alcohol before birth.

“First, it was thought he had autism,” said Ms. Wilkins, recalling the numerous diagnoses he had “before we got to the fetal alcohol diagnosis.”

Even before learning about his exposure to alcohol, she learned he had been exposed to cocaine as a fetus. “I was shocked,” she said.

Then, while researching another topic, she stumbled across information about fetal alcohol exposure.

“And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” Ms. Wilkins said, adding that the light bulb that went off led her to the conclusion that Jayden might also have been exposed to alcohol before his birth. She was right.

“I asked his [biological] mom if she drank, and she said maybe one beer,” Ms. Wilkins said.

It’s not unheard of that a woman is not completely honest about her alcohol consumption while pregnant. Some even get mixed messages as to whether it is OK to drink from the very people who should know better.

“Some doctors say one drink might be OK, but we’ve been advocating, don’t even go there. Young women say they know not to drink during pregnancy, but others say, ‘Well, my mom drank,’ and because it’s legal, people think it’s OK,” said Janet Bosserman, executive director at Double ARC.

Ms. Wilkins believed more than one drink was consumed before Jayden was born.

“He is an awesome little boy. To me, it’s like for the area that was damaged, the rest of his brain makes up for it,” Ms. Wilkins said about her son.

When pregnant women drink alcohol, it can cause more harm to a fetus than taking illegal drugs.

“Cocaine and heroin are not as damaging to the fetus as alcohol,” Mrs. Bosserman said. “It’s the nature of alcohol to permeate through the blood system and through the placenta to the baby; it causes brain damage.”

Michelle Smith-Wojnowski, manager of women’s health outreach for the Neighborhood Health Association, said newborns whose mothers drink while pregnant could have decreased brain development, mental health disorders, physical deformities, and emotional problems.

Some might cry a lot or have tremors. Ms. Smith-Wojnowski said tremors “can shake their delicate little brain [and cause it to] hit the skull.” Her agency’s Partners for Healthy Baby program educates women about the devastating affects of drinking alcohol while pregnant.

“Alcohol is a toxin to the brain and it’s more damaging than any other drug, including cocaine,” added Sister Suzette Fisher, Sisters of Notre Dame, director of client services and co-founder at Double ARC.

Sister Suzette said some children with FASD think everybody is their friend, and when they do, “They can get into tough situations. Socially, they tend not to have friends but they think everybody is their friend. They don’t know how to get and keep friends; they don’t have the social skills and they don’t know how to communicate well, [though] some talk better than they understand.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year announced that more than 3 million women in this country are at risk for exposing their unborn babies to alcohol when they drink.

The CDC report states: “Alcohol use during pregnancy, even within the first few weeks and before a woman knows she is pregnant, can cause lasting physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child’s lifetime. … There is no known safe amount of alcohol — even beer or wine — that is safe for a woman to drink at any stage of pregnancy.”

Citing another CDC report, Mrs. Bosserman said that one in 20 school children may have FASDs. Using that calculation in Lucas County, where in 2014 there were 5,707 live births, means that 286 children were prenatally exposed to alcohol, causing FASD, Mrs. Bosserman said.

“This is year after year. Thousands of children in Lucas County schools suffer from the effects of FASD,” she added.

Mrs. Bosserman also said a CDC study found that in 2013, 54 percent of Ohio women ages 18 to 44 drank alcohol and 19 percent binged on alcohol. Moreover, Sister Suzette gives a statistic that might give women of childbearing age considerable pause.

“Fifty percent of all pregnancies are unplanned. If you are a drinking woman and it’s fairly regular, your baby could be impacted,” she said.

In the last 20 years, Double ARC has diagnosed 265 children with FASD, she said. The diagnosis process involves a physician, neuropsychologist, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, and FASD specialists. The results of a diagnosis are given to parents.

“We are able to take all that information and give it to the parent and tell them what will help them with their child,” Sister Suzette said. “You do not change the child because they have permanent brain damage. That’s why we’re so concerned about women who drink during pregnancy. There is no safe time or safe amount.”

Mrs. Bosserman describes FASD as “a community problem that goes unrecognized. The toll on the child, family, and community is so great, as these children often, without intervention, drop out of school, commit crimes, are underemployed, turn to drugs and alcohol, and don’t have the life skills to live on their own.”

Mrs. Bosserman said Double ARC works with schools and teachers to help them understand why children with FASD might misbehave. The agency has also provided training for officials at juvenile court, as it wants schools and other authorities “to understand that this is a brain function and not willful behavior. We work with police to help them understand there may be a reason for such behavior.”

Children with FASD require commitment from those involved.

“I will go to meetings to advocate for these children, to help make sure the child is getting services and support,” Sister Suzette said. “School is the hardest place for these kids, mainly because teachers [who] don’t understand think they are bad kids and have bad behaviors, and until we understand what’s that child trying to communicate, you are more likely to punish [him or her].”

Contact Rose Russell at: rrussell@theblade.com or 419-724-6178.

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