Comparing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder encompasses a wide range of symptoms that sometimes overlap with signs of other neurodevelopmental disorders and learning disorders. In a recent episode of our podcast, Neurodiversity University, our founder, neuropsychologist Brandon Parks sat down to talk about the similarities and differences between Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

“We classify Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or any kind of pre-natal substance exposure, as a neurodiversity because of the wide range of effects it can have on a fetus’ brain development. The degree of symptoms depends on timing, frequency, amount of parent substance use, but it can be unpredictable,” explains Dr. Brandon Park. “All of these substances have an effect on adult’s brains. Before birth, as a child’s brain is rapidly developing, they are even more vulnerable to the effects of these substances.”

Executive Functioning Issues Associated with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

When most people think about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, they typically think about the physical features associated with the disorder, which make it easier to identify. However, the cognitive changes often present the biggest challenges for teens. Like other neurodiversities, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is associated with a variety of executive functioning issues. This overlap can make fetal alcohol syndrome and autism spectrum disorder hard to distinguish.

Some cognitive features of the disorder may include:

  • Poor ability to plan, organize, and predict things
  • Problems with impulse control and managing emotions
  • Slower processing speed
  • Limited working memory
  • Specific learning disabilities, related to math, reading, or writing

What Makes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Unique From Other Executive Functioning Issues?

Although similar to rigid processing in teens on the spectrum, teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome often struggle with the ability to think forward and to think backwards when making decisions. Teens who can only process one moment to the next become so focused on meeting their immediate needs that they struggle to see the bigger picture or the long-term effects of their actions. Sometimes, that plays out as “I want you to do what I want right now” and it doesn’t matter how that is going to affect our relationship, say, two weeks from now. There’s a lot of in-the-now urgency that can be frustrating for parents who want to help their child look ahead or practice being more patient. 

However, when they are more emotionally regulated, teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome do not struggle with social cues or communication the same way that teens on the Spectrum do. They just might have a tough time tough time managing and thinking emotions and knowing what to do with their emotions during these actions, as they come on strong and don’t have the executive functioning skills to stabilize them. They’ve got a driving impulsivity, that resembles hyperactivity associated with ADHD, except it doesn’t respond to medication. As a result, teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome often require a different approach to understand how to focus their emotions and use them as energy to meet their personal goals.

Importance of an Accurate Diagnosis

A lot of kids with pre-natal substance exposure are best classified on the Autism Spectrum, so they can get their (social, emotional, academic) needs met in a school environment or a therapeutic setting. 

When professionals don’t realize that there is neurodiversity going on, it’s more likely that they will be diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder or as oppositionally defiant. Especially with kids whose parents have a history of substance use, many people assume that they just struggle with attachment or trauma, but it’s actually more grounded in neurology. 

It is important for psychologists working with a neurodiverse population, whether they’re on the Autism Spectrum or the Pre-Natal Substance Exposure spectrum, to understand that there are often other things at play as well. By focusing on underlying problems with executive functioning issues, New Focus Academy is better able to help both populations improve their self-esteem and become better at managing their emotions.

Brandon believes it is “our goal to be more aware of what’s going on and responsible about the way we work with these students so that we’re not just labeling them as oppositional or another misdiagnosis, but, we’re making the effort to understand symptoms and offer appropriate treatment recommendations.”

New Focus Academy Can Help 

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with neurodevelopmental issues such as fetal alcohol syndrome that are associated with learning differences. The mission of the program is to use positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and a clear sense of judgement in their everyday lives. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.

For more information, call (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!