Children who are born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome grow up and have to have a life of their own. Physical symptoms are not the only way in which FAS can impact a person’s life. Many individuals with this condition also experience significant mental and developmental problems as well, such as: learning disabilities; poor memory; low IQ; poor social skills, etc. Therefore many individuals going into adulthood with FAS will often require specialised care to cope with their condition.

Some disturbing facts

  • When alcohol enters the bloodstream of a pregnant woman, it’s carried through the placental tissue that separates the baby’s blood systems from hers, delivering the alcohol directly to the developing tissues of the foetus. This means that when a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her unborn baby.
  • The physical effects of FAS are often prominent: smaller in stature and shorter than other individuals; flattened philtrum (groove in the upper lip); smaller head circumference; smaller than normal eye openings; thinner upper lip; low and short nose bridge; flattened cheekbones; small jaw.
  • The condition is endemic in the Western and Northern Cape, where high levels of unemployment, alcohol and substance abuse and teen pregnancies are intrinsic to daily life. Blame is laid at the door of the 200-year-old dop system, in which farmers pay black and mixed-race workers in wine, as the primary cause of the regions’ high prevalence of alcoholism. Disturbingly, in some high-risk rural areas, up to 72% of school-age children are believed to suffer from FAS.
  • FAS is often a “hidden disability” that can affect a child in a number of ways, not all immediately obvious to parents or doctors. A social worker with an NGO based in Worcester, says: “You can’t necessarily see it when the child is born, only later when the child isn’t talking or crawling or walking like other children.” Despite this, there have been no government studies to measure socio-economic impacts – particularly as the child reaches adulthood.
  • It seems an intractable problem, but there are a  number of dedicated and effective NGOs who run courses in at-risk communities to spread awareness of the condition, as well as “mentor mother” programmes, which rely on local mothers going door-to-door to speak to pregnant women about drinking. Concerted action by these organisations has helped to reduce the number of pregnant women who drink during pregnancy by as much as 84%.

FASD and Adulthood

Sadly, most of the focus on FAS is on the effects on children. But these children grow up and have to have a life of their own, to find work and support families. Unfortunately, adults are increasingly vulnerable to the secondary challenges of the condition such as: trouble with the law, mental health problems, an inability to live independently or handle money, unemployment and victimisation.

Physical symptoms are not the only way in which FAS can impact a person’s life. Many individuals with this condition also experience significant mental and developmental problems as well, such as: learning disabilities; poor memory; low IQ; poor social skills, etc. Therefore many individuals going into adulthood with FAS will often require specialised care to cope with their condition.

A particular secondary factor that dogs adults with FAS is legal trouble. They often have a significantly higher rate of arrest and incarceration. Studies have shown near 50% of people with FAS will experience trouble with the law at least once in their lifetime. For example, a person may steal because he or she is unable to understand the concept of ownership. Maintaining a steady job is another difficulty, along with paying commitments such as rentals and accounts.  

While these negatives are difficult to navigate during adulthood when people are expected to take care of themselves, support during this time can be effective in helping people with FAS to lead productive and relatively independent lives. Unfortunately, worldwide – and certainly in South Africa – these adults do not always get the levels of assistance they need. Continued mental health problems into adulthood, homelessness, disrupted schooling, and eventually difficulty in taking care of their own children, are critical issues requiring the attention of specialised coaches, counsellors and carers to try and bring these people into more normalised and independent lives.

While progress has been made in reducing the number of children born with this affliction, there is still a long road ahead in ensuring better care for the adults and the challenges they have to face in a world where it is too easy for them to be left behind.

The story of Sunfield Home

Twenty years ago, Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care adult individuals. 

Each individual is screened to evaluate their strengths and allocate activities according to their abilities. A protective workshop has been established where contract work is undertaken, as well as arts and crafts activities. An employment scheme has also been developed and as a result permanent and successful positions have been found within the surrounding wine and cheese industries. 

Find out more about us at: www.sunfieldhome.co.za     

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