DISABILITIES

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By Daniel J. Vance

I won't mention her real name because “Amanda” dearly wants to protect her son, “Brent,” who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome.

“We got Brent as a foster child when he was four months old,” began Amanda in a telephone interview. “We had him for a year, he was given back to his mother, and she kept wanting to give him back to us. We eventually adopted him when he was in the third grade.” Brent's birth mother eventually had health problems and died.

Amanda had sensed something was amiss when Brent was 3. A psychologist then said Brent had only a two-second attention span, and was impulsive, overly friendly with people, didn't understand personal boundaries and showed no fear. Doctors didn't diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome then, only mental retardation, noted Amanda.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines fetal alcohol syndrome disorder as “an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual who was prenatally exposed to alcohol.” These permanent effects can be physical, mental, and behavioral, and involve learning disabilities. Fetal alcohol syndrome is completely preventable.

Brent's impulsiveness has led to his shoplifting as a middle-schooler, stealing the family car, kicking in the neighbor's garage door, and other behaviors too numerous to mention. Perhaps one-third of the U.S. prison population has fetal alcohol syndrome.

Today, Brent is 23 and lives in a group home. Said Amanda, “His biggest handicap is he doesn't look handicapped and people have high expectations for him because he looks normal. I fear for him as he ages because of his vulnerability. He wants people to like him, and people can take advantage of him easily.”

In part, Amanda copes by talking with other parents of children with fetal alcohol syndrome and with professionals, and by attending conferences. She also attends a regular exercise class that has three other moms with children in group homes. She advised parents to find a supportive doctor and to become involved in their state fetal alcohol syndrome organization.

“And find a therapist who truly understands and helps you see things from your child's perspective,” said Amanda. “Our therapist helped Brent with anger management.”

Even with all his challenges, Brent has “the kindest heart,” said Amanda. “When his birth mother died, he was there and a little trooper. He had tears in his eyes and held her hands.”

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