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Raising awareness of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

17 Dec 2014, by Informa Insights

FASD is a brain injury too.

Our 2nd Annual National Acquired Brain Injury conference in Sydney featured on interactive panel discussion on the developments and implications for Australia of FASD. The discussion featured Vicki Russell, CEO, National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, Prof Heather Douglas from TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland and Prof Jane Lattimer from the Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney and was facilitated by Nick Rushworth, Executive Officer, Brain Injury Australia. Nick shares his thoughts below. 

FASDPerhaps some of you are wondering what a session on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is doing in a conference on brain injury. Brain Injury Australia/ I is/ am at least partly responsible for that. During my opening remarks to last year’s conference, I said that Brain Injury Australia was going to change the definition it uses for acquired brain injury – from any damage to the brain that occurs after birth – to include the exception of FASD.

For two reasons.

One principled.

One pragmatic. Firstly, it just didn’t seem to me to make an diagnostical commonsense for Brain Injury Australia – and for its Member organisations – to always and everywhere refer to alcohol as cause of brain injury in adults, but then exclude the passive drinking of the unborn. Some of Brain Injury Australia’s Member organisations have embraced the change. Others have questioned what they perceive as definitional boundary creep – that the inclusion of FASD is the first step on a slippery slope that might bring in – what next? – cerebral palsy. And that the natural home for FASD is with intellectual disability, even though – as I understand it – the specific cognitive-behavioural impairments the result of fetal alcohol exposure often leave intellect intact.

Secondly, I think it’s more than fair to say that advocates like myself have done a lousy job, really no job at all, when it comes to raising awareness about alcohol and other drug-related brain injury in adults. Few people would dispute Australians’ vexed relationship with alcohol. Nearly 4 per cent of men and 3 per cent of women drink at high-risk to long-term health, inclusive of brain injury. Nearly half of our alcohol is consumed at levels that pose risks to long-term health, inclusive of brain injury.

There’s no end to worthy causes. However, the awareness-raising marketplace is very competitive and compassion-fatigued. No lobbyist, in my opinion, wants to be championing a poster child for alcohol-related brain injury, who has been abusing a cask of tawny port every night for the last thirty years. Someone whose brain injury would be viewed as self-inflicted by the wider community.

For those of you who follow the politics of disability, disability politics, FASD is about where Autism Spectrum Disorder was around 5 years ago, part-feeding frenzy, part-gold rush. Brain Injury Australia will not only ride that wave, but “use” – as it were – the neurotoxic effects of alchohol on the unborn to raise awareness of the dangers with the born and bred in alcohol over-consumption.

Click here to see the effect that alcohol has on the developing fetus during the different stages of gestation.


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