Alaska News

Is it autism or FASD?

Autism or FASD?

Autism and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are different disabilities with some similar symptoms.

The causes of autism are not fully known, though most scientists agree genetics plays a role. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, including fetal alcohol syndrome, can only be found in children whose mothers drank during pregnancy.

The problems are about equally common, estimated to affect about 11 out of every 1,000 children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A child can be diagnosed with both an FASD and autism, although sometimes children whose mothers drank during pregnancy are wrongly assumed to be autistic.

Children with FASD may be sociable and outgoing, while autistic children are often aloof and prefer to be alone, for example. While FASD occurs in boys and girls at roughly the same rate, boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed as autistic.

Both problems are incurable developmental disabilities, though friends and family members can help afflicted children live rich, happy lives.


Here are the symptoms of each disorder, and how they overlap.

Children with autism may:

• Have difficulty relating to others in a meaningful way

• Demonstrate restricted patterns of behavior, interests and activities

• Speak in a robotic, formal way

• Show ritualistic behaviors

• Have trouble expressing humor

Children with FASD may:

• Feel different from other people

• Experience disturbed sleep

• Be indiscriminately affectionate with strangers

• Lie about the obvious

• Have an increased startle response

• Develop depression, often in teen years

• Have difficulty initiating activity or following through

• Manage time poorly or lack comprehension of time

• Actively defy or refuse to comply


• Act touchy or easily annoyed

• Become angry and resentful

Children with either autism or FASD may:

• Show developmental dysmaturity

• Interrupt or intrude on others

• Act without considering consequences

• Have difficulty organizing tasks and activities

• Have difficulty with transitions


• Be impulsive, hyperactive

• Avoid eye contact

• Not be cuddly

• Chatter incessantly or have delayed speech

• Be emotionally volatile or exhibit wide mood swings

• Have problems with social interaction

• Have an over- or under-sensitive sense of touch

• Struggle to understand cause and effect of their actions

• Show exceptional abilities in a single area, such as music or math

• Have difficulty with friendships

Sources: Cathy Bruer-Thompson, Adoption Training Coordinator, Hennepin County, Minn., via Assets Inc.; Minnesota Organization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.


Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email