By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post satff
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) affects approximately nine in every 1,000 births, and for those children and adults, traditional methods of teaching and discipline just don’t work, according to Dan Dubovsky, a mental health professional and social worker who spoke at an FASD conference at Bingemans Monday.
Not only is Dubovsky a social worker with 30 years in the fields of mental health and developmental disabilities, but he is also the father of Bill, who is affected by FASD. Currently Dubovsky works as an FASD specialist for an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
This disorder, which is caused when a fetus is exposed to an unknown amount of alcohol, can affect short-term and working memory, learning, emotion and can cause aggression, according to Dubovsky.
“Working memory is what we rely on when we tell someone to do something,” he said. “If their working memory is impaired, they won’ t be able to follow the instructions you’ve given them.”
For this reason, children with FASD often butt heads with teachers, who may think that the behaviour is willful or malicious.
Teens and adults with the disorder are at a greater risk of becoming homeless, and often fail in housing programs because of their inability to manage money and follow directions.
“Bill, when he was 12 years old, could tell you the details of the Star Wars movie he saw when he was five. Clearly he can remember the directions I just gave him,” said Dubovsky, describing his frustrations with his own son.
“(But it’s) different memory.”
To help deal with this issue, caregivers and teachers must give only one or two instructions at a time and repeat these for daily tasks, which helps the information transfer into long-term memory, according to Dubovsky. It’s also important not to change days or times of specific appointments.
Sudden aggression can be another issue facing teachers and caregivers that deal with FASD sufferers.
“Any change causes stress and anxiety,” said Dubovsky, explaining that those with FASD react more severely to minor stressors because of an over-release of cortisol in the brain.
“It’s not just overreacting; it’s a physiological response. This is not willful behaviour.”
To help cope with the sudden anger and aggression, he suggests caregivers learn to recognize the subtle signs of an FASD sufferer who is about to throw a tantrum.
Once caregivers can recognize this, they can proactively have the person use relaxation strategies like deep breathing, or, in the case of Dubovsky’s son, hitting a punching bag.
“Then we want them to get to the point where they can identify when they’re getting stressed, frustrated, anxious and take those breaks themselves,” he said.
Despite the challenges faced by people with FASD, they also have a number of strengths, he said. They are often extremely helpful, friendly, don’t hold a grudge and are good with children, seniors and the disabled, among other things.
However, they are also naive, gullible and have difficulty identifying dangerous people and situations, which can put them at risk of victimization, said Dubovsky.
The FASD community forum was provided by KidsAbility, Lutherwood and the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council.
For more information on FASD visit FASDWaterlooRegion.ca.