Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder amid COVID-19: Fewer services, potential boost in rates

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is the leading developmental disability in Canada. Despite its preventable nature, there is concern among FASD researchers about a potential increase in FASD prevalence rates as a result of COVID-19, in addition to the impact the pandemic is having on the community.

FASD is a lifelong disability affecting people who were exposed to alcohol prenatally. In Canada, more people have FASD than autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome combined.

Current rates are conservatively estimated to be approximately four per cent in North America. However, FASD is very challenging to diagnose, and many experts believe that its prevalence is actually much higher.

COVID-19 compounds challenges in this community
Anecdotally, we know that individuals with FASD and their families are facing increased challenges as a result of this pandemic. Caregivers are concerned about a lack of supports, disruption in daily routine and mental health challenges.

Canadians with disabilities have drawn attention to their exclusion from COVID-19 messaging, as well to program cancellations and experiences of social isolation.

While these disruptions can have a negative impact on all individuals, they can have greater consequences for individuals with FASD and their families. People with FASD thrive with consistency and routine, but the pandemic has caused massive changes to our daily lives.

There is also concern about the future impact on mental health. While this body of evidence is still unfolding, parents reported changes in their children’s emotional state in a recent preprint manuscript (a preliminary paper that has yet to be formally reviewed), including difficulty concentrating, boredom, irritability, restlessness and nervousness. Experiences of parenting stress are also higher during COVID-19 among families reporting these emotional changes in their children.

These findings are concerning, especially for families of individuals with FASD who report higher levels of parenting stress compared to families of typically developing children and even those of children with other disabilities.

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