Fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Indigenous schoolchildren

Loretta R de Plevitz, Judith S Gould and Terrina M Smith
Med J Aust 2009; 190 (5): 286-287.
Published online: 2 March 2009

To the Editor: A causal connection between alcoholic mothers and developmental delays and physical abnormalities in their babies was identified in the 1970s and termed fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Other less extreme but still disabling effects fall under the umbrella term of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).1

Some studies have found higher prevalences of FAS among indigenous children in several countries, including Australia.2-4 However, none are as high as those cited in a webcast video program produced by the Rural Health Education Foundation and accredited by (and examinable for professional development points awarded by) the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, Royal College of Nursing Australia, and the Australian Physiotherapy Association.5 In this program, an Indigenous Australian health worker states that 540 out of 614 children aged under 12 in an (unnamed) Indigenous community are “already showing signs of primary and secondary disabilities associated with FAS and FASD”.5 These findings are not sourced and therefore not verifiable.

We believe that unsubstantiated claims such as this can fuel racism against Indigenous children. Research conducted within a Queensland Aboriginal community school found that teachers were using information such as that provided in the video program to explain students’ poor school performances, when no formal diagnoses of FASD had been made for the children.6 It is racially discriminatory to impute a lifelong and incurable disability to Indigenous children when no teratogenic condition has been diagnosed. The prevalence of FAS and FASD has not been comprehensively established in Indigenous or non-Indigenous communities in Australia.

There are other reasons why Indigenous students might not be succeeding in school, such as hearing impairments, being taught in Standard English (which is not their first language), or being assessed with culturally and linguistically biased school and IQ tests.6,7 Stigmatising them as intellectually impaired can lead to low self-esteem, behavioural problems, and absences from school. These outcomes have been noted here and overseas,7 yet some educationalists persist in blaming prenatal factors (including “bad genes”) rather than addressing the more difficult issues of systemic racism in the educational setting.

In light of the federal government’s campaign to protect Indigenous children and to encourage their educational potential, as well as its general attack on binge drinking, it is essential to fund programs that address FAS and FASD in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Further, all governments need to support the dissemination of clear and substantiated information on this preventable cause of intellectual impairment.

  • 1. Streissguth AP, Bookstein FL, Barr HM, et al. Risk factors for adverse life outcomes in fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects. J Dev Behav Pediatr 2004; 25: 228-238.
  • 2. Elliott EJ, Payne JM, Morris A, et al. Fetal alcohol syndrome: a prospective national surveillance study. Arch Dis Child 2008; 93: 732-737. doi: 10.1136/adc.2007.120220.
  • 3. Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Fetal alcohol syndrome among aboriginal people in Canada: review and analysis of the intergenerational links to residential schools. Ottawa: AHF, 2003. (accessed Sep 2008).
  • 4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fetal alcohol syndrome — South Africa, 2001. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2003; 52: 660-602.
  • 5. Rural Health Education Foundation. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Program ID 614 [webcast video program, first broadcast 8 Nov 2006]. Canberra: Rural Health Education Foundation, 2006. (accessed Jul 2008).
  • 6. Gould J. The affects of language assessment policies in speech-language pathology on the educational experiences of Indigenous students. Curr Issues Lang Plann 2008; 9: 299-316.
  • 7. de Plevitz L. Special schooling for Indigenous students: a new form of racial discrimination? Aust J Indigenous Education 2006; 35: 44-53.


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