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The key to fighting fetal alcohol syndrome: communication

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By Lindalee Soderstrom

When I read Friday morning's article in the Hastings Star Gazette about the child in Hastings, Minn., who displayed a gun at his middle school, I was touched that he came back to his classroom. He even broke glass trying to get back in. The teacher, who had locked the door after the student left the first time, calmly kept asking the child what he could do for him.

One might not think of a 14-year-old middle schooler as a child. But I am the adoptive mom of a young man, now 24 years old, who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) at birth. I know that the adaptive daily living skills and social/emotional development of someone with FAS is often deemed to be one-half that of someone their biological age. 

So this 14-year-old in Hastings, who has not been identified but is described as showing symptoms of FAS, may have the capacities of a 7- to 8-year-old -- and not a normal 7- to 8-year-old, but one with unique and invisible special needs. 

Some of our kids have concurrent mental illnesses like depression or bipolar disorder. Some of our children have reactive attachment disorders, in which -- despite their desperate need to be held and loved, guided and protected --  they cannot tolerate the closeness or the relationships that could reach into their disordered central nervous systems. 

Alcohol insult to the fetus causes permanent brain damage, irreversible and preventable. If no women in their childbearing years, or at risk to conceive, consumed any alcohol whatsoever, there would no longer be children born within the umbrella diagnoses of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

As a former foster and then adoptive family, our story runs a different course. Because my Jesse was blessed with his FAS diagnosis at delivery, he has had therapies and interventions throughout his 24 years. His adjustment is good. 

He lives semi-independently and works in a university dormitory kitchen doing dishes and pans, truck unloading and other tasks. He pays his bills 10 seconds after they arrive. He does his own laundry every Sunday afternoon. He has received two good citizenship awards in his special needs apartment building in as many years, and does his best to feed himself adequately. 

He was born with low vision and without the natural urgings of hunger, so it is an impressive fact that he navigates as well in the community as he does. He is a happy fellow, proud of his accomplishments, and contented. 

He was a 12-pound 12-month-old coming from the neonatal intensive care unit into my foster care in 1986. Our adoption was finalized around three years later. His outcomes are improved and his risk factors reduced because of our knowledge that his birth mother drank while pregnant.

If the reader should learn one thing from our story, it is this: Alcohol use and alcoholism should not be taboo topics for communication in our culture. Because our Minnesota culture of alcohol use and misuse includes moms and dads-to-be, we all need to know that there is no known safe amount of alcohol from conception through nursing. Dads have babies too, and though they do not contribute to the actual exposure to alcohol in utero, their genetic contribution can carry damage to the child in conception. 

We need communication in order to provide support for moms-to-be. If a pregnant woman cannot stop her alcohol use on her own, medical intervention is required immediately. Alcoholism is not a defect of character but a complex condition, a psycho/social/emotional/medical disease. Communication is the key in collaborating for the health of the child, the mother and our whole community. 

My Jesse's ship runs smoothly because honest communication allowed his early diagnosis and the investment of energy and resources in his early development, thus preventing later mental impairments, struggles in public school and his being treated as willfully disobedient, inconsistent or careless. He will thus avoid imprisonment for having a developmental disability, having unmet needs or not being able to fit in long-term. He will continue developing into the hard-working and sincere young man he has become.

To my mother's instinct, the child in Hastings was seeking help and happened to have a gun in his hand. To return repeatedly to where your science teacher is saying "How can I help you?" is not the behavior of a vicious criminal, but of a child in deep need of intervention and supported living. 

How can we help such children? We must learn more about FAS and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and remain willing to keep learning and keep sharing.

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Lindalee Soderstrom attended Carleton College in Northfield, earned her M.A. in human development at St. Mary's Graduate School in the Twin Cities and is completing her LPN with health-unit coordinator certificate at Minnesota State College, Southeast Technical, in Winona, Minn.

(Editor's note: This article originally appeared with the headline, "A young man with a gun gives us all reason to learn about fetal alcohol syndrome.")