The Story of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Wilson, Sylvia A., Martell, Rebecca, Women & Environments International Magazine
A Canadian First Nations' Response
Good acts done for the love of children become stories, which are good for the ears of people from other bands; they become coveted things, and are placed side by side with the stories of war achievements. (Assiniboine tradition)
Stories told by people share their "essential heart." Through sharing their stories and their intimate knowledge of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), children and families become the "teachers" to communities and societies, providing guiding information that could lead the way in solving the deep, fundamental problems that create and are created by FAS. Children who are affected by FAS are of immense worth, for they have the greatest gift to give. Their silent message or their own life experience is a gift of knowledge that moves us from a superficial level of understanding of the effect of alcohol on the unborn child, to a deeper appreciation from which to develop solutions to the fundamental global issues of FAS.
The prospect of a healthy and happy life begins in the womb as the child develops in body, mind, and spirit. Science suggests alcohol is more damaging than once thought, even in low doses and FAS is a "silent epidemic" that does not discriminate against race, culture and class. In every 1000 babies born in Canada, up to three, and more in some Aboriginal communities, are affected by FAS. Many mothers are not aware of the consequences of alcohol consumption, as only a generation ago even most physicians did not understand it. "But when half of Canadian women drink and half of all pregnancies are unplanned, plenty of mothers are exposing their fetuses to alcohol, if only for the short time before discovering they are pregnant," wrote M. Philp in Canada's Globe and Mail Newspaper.
FAS is a birth defect syndrome that results in a life-long disability profoundly impacting development and affecting individuals families, and society. Children exposed to alcohol during intrauterine development often have a wide range of impairments and have life-long consequences. Adverse effects of prenatal alcohol exposure exist on a continuum from subtle deficits of daily life such as judgment, problem solving, memory and so forth, to complete FAS syndrome typically characterized by intellectual disabilities, facial anomalies and severe behavioral problems.
At an individual level, it takes great courage for a parent to have their child diagnosed, admit drinking during pregnancy, to accept the outcome and develop a life plan for a child affected by alcohol. Brave mothers have come forward, speaking for the first time about the difficulties they were having with their little ones, asking for support and assistance.
"Please, please, God. Do not take Daniel away from me yet. Let me raise him for you. Do not take him away just yet. He is only two months old. It's too soon. Please, please, God, give me another chance. I will change my life around. I will leave drugs and alcohol alone. Spare him and I will do anything. Don't take him," pleaded one Ontario Aboriginal mother.
The stories of children personify the condition, taking us beyond the impairment to empathy for the person. This young person described how hyperactivity feels:
"I used to like to take all the cushions off the couch. I would stack them up on the floor and then I would run circles around them all day. That's all I would do is just run, run, run. How many children do you know that are 2 or 3 years old that sweat? I was literally soaked with sweat."
It also takes courage to raise a child born with FAS. In 1975, while training in Native addiction at the Nechi Institute on Alcohol & Drug Education, Rebecca studied alcoholism and drug addiction while exploring a spiritual model for recovery. What she did not learn at that time was the effect that maternal consumption of alcohol had on an unborn child. That same year, as a young foster parent, Rebecca was having difficulty with her foster son and commented:
"This brave sounding boy was the same one who had me up repeatedly in the night. …