PUBLISHED: 5:03 PM on Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Experts say underdiagnosed disease leads to time in prison, mental hospitals
Chances are you know someone with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, but don't realize it.

Many people with FASD look healthy.

That's part of the reason they suffer so much in life.

They're expected to hold steady jobs, maintain healthy relationships and achieve life's milestones just like other people.

But life isn't so easy for people whose mothers drank alcohol while they were in the womb.

Depending on the amount of alcohol drunk by the mother, FASD's symptoms vary dramatically, ranging from minor behavioral problems, such as short attention span, to more severe health disorders, including problems to the central nervous system, deafness, asthma, dyslexia, cerebral palsy and severe facial deformities. The list goes on.

A growing number of medical experts and social workers are now saying that FASD may be the most underdiagnosed illness of this generation.

Recent studies are showing that up to 1 percent of the population may suffer from some type of FASD. But less than 2 percent of those people are ever diagnosed, some experts say.

"It's one of those amazing events in medicine where in our lifetime a new and important cause of birth defects and mental illnesses has been identified," said Dr. Larry Burd of the North Dakota Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Center.

There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, one type of FASD, but the condition is 100 percent preventable.

Last year, the surgeon general warned for the first time that no amount of alcohol should be consumed by a woman during pregnancy.

The recommendation is a shift from the old theory that a limited amount of alcohol was safe for expecting mothers.

According to Burd's analysis, 10 percent to 20 percent of people born with FASD will lead independent lives into adulthood.

Up to 60 percent of the cases will end up either in the criminal justice system, a mental health clinic or substance abuse centers at some point in their lives, according to Burd.

Difficult to diagnose

A person with full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome will show specific facial, behavioral and physical characteristics.

Some of the disorder's physical symptoms include a low birth weight, abnormally shaped eyes, a small and thin upper lip, a low nasal bridge, a small jaw and a flat midface.

"With them, it's clear there's something wrong here," Burd said.

But for the people with fetal alcohol syndrome who lack the physical impairments, their condition is often overlooked.

"People just think they're acting up," Burd said.

Behaviorally, the syndrome often causes immature social development, poor impulse and judgement control, anxiousness, poor problem solving abilities and an inability to regulate emotions.

These abnormal behaviors carry on into adulthood. Many adults with FASD get into trouble with the law and are unable to hold a steady job or live without some form of assistance.

Up to 80 percent of children in foster care suffer from FASD, according to the National Organization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Many experts in the field agree that up to 50 percent of the inmate population in U.S. prisons suffer from the syndrome.

By increasing awareness of the disease, Thetford hopes to give people with FASD a better chance at living successful lives. Early detection and treatment can help prevent a pattern of misbehavior that in many cases dooms the lives of those born with the disease, she said.

"Kids are being blamed for actions they can't control," Thetford said.

"They know the rules. They just can't follow them, and they don't know why."