Secondary disabilities aren’t caused directly by drinking during pregnancy. But they develop throughout later childhood, adolescence, and during adulthood. Children, youth and adults living with FASD live in a world that often does not fit them very well. Most people around them do not recognize that their behaviour and limitations are in fact linked to primary disabilities of FASD.

This is often called a “poor fit”. The poor fit between people affected by FASD and their environment is not on purpose. It is because of gaps in understanding and missing information. When other people don’t recognize that someone has a disability, they have expectations that can’t be met. So people affected by FASD experience failure over and over. This is confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating—and it contributes to secondary disabilities.

Early diagnosis and providing the right supports can reduce the effects of primary disabilities and prevent secondary disabilities.  Here are some of the secondary disabilities that can be reduced or eliminated if we are able to provide the right supports (or “protective factors”) to children affected by FASD:

  • mental health problems
  • repeated school failures
  • trouble with the law
  • inappropriate sexual behaviour
  • drug and alcohol problems
  • social isolation
  • problems living independently or homelessness
  • victimization
  • risk taking activities
  • unplanned pregnancy
  • problems with employment

Secondary behaviour characteristics
Some of the behaviours in children affected by FASD that result from the secondary disabilities are very understandable when we understand that there is a “poor fit” between the child and the situation around them. These children can show the following behaviours:

  • fatigue or frustration
  • rigid, resistant, or argumentative
  • easily overwhelmed or shut down
  • poor self-esteem
  • isolated
  • school problems
  • depression, self-destructive, even suicidal

Protective factors for secondary disabilities
We can’t fix or change the primary effects of FASD, but we can reduce its impacts. The secondary disabilities that often result from FASD can be limited through protective factors. Five protective factors that can reduce the impact of secondary disabilities include:

  • living in a stable and nurturing home for most of their lives
  • not having frequent changes of their living situation
  • not experiencing violence
  • having received developmental disabilities services
  • having been diagnosed with FASD before age six

Finding a good fit
Many families have identified that secondary disabilities are actually more troubling and confusing than primary ones. They often take the most time and energy to deal with. And they can have greater risks for the child, youth, adult, and family. It is very important to recognize a poor fit and be prepared to help find a good fit. Creating a good fit takes some work. But it can really help reduce secondary disabilities.

A great starting point is to identify the strengths of people affected by FASD. Knowing about struggles and disabilities is important. But knowing about strengths will help create a good fit and make a positive  difference. Look for chances to discover new talents as the individual ages and matures. Every person is unique and will have a particular set of gifts. Some common strengths for people with FASD:

  • highly verbal, friendly, cheerful, and affectionate
  • natural kindness with children and animals
  • fair and cooperative nature
  • caring, kind, concerned, sensitive, loyal, faithful
  • creative, especially in art and music
  • good manual and mechanical skills, good with repetitive activities such as cooking and construction
  • determined, committed, persistent, and helpful
  • spontaneous, curious, and involved
  • can learn to problem solve with support

Here is a quote from a parent from the Picture This video project about a creative gift her child has:

Audio Transcription:

“My son, who has FASD and struggles with memory and in many other areas of his life, was given a gift by the creator.  He plays a fiddle with such grace and beauty; it is a joy to behold.”