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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder refers to the full range of effects that can occur in people exposed to alcohol while in the womb. Several different types of disorders are associated with this exposure, with fetal alcohol syndrome being the most severe. Although this is a permanent condition and cannot be cured, children with some form of the condition can be helped.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities, with possible lifelong implications.
Each year, as many as 40,000 babies are born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Hundreds of thousands of adults have these disorders. Most adults with the condition appear normal, but they have cognitive problems that make it hard to live independently. In particular, their social development is stunted, and they have poor judgment. Their behavior is unpredictable from one day to the next and can get them into serious trouble.
Many people with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder do not understand how impaired they are, which puts them at even greater risk. They have a strong desire to be "normal." In fact, most appear normal to others, raising unreasonable expectations and setting the stage for failure. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is often associated with substance abuse, unemployment, and jail time. With appropriate support, however, such negative outcomes can be avoided.

What Are the Different Types?

A person is not diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, per se. Instead, he or she is diagnosed with one of the various types. Terms currently being used or that have been used to describe the different types include:
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Fetal alcohol effects
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)
  • Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).
Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe type. Other types include conditions in which individuals have some, but not all, of the characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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