'Swiss cheese learners'
"Monday they'll be perfect, Tuesday they'll be perfect, and Wednesday they have no idea what you're talking about," she said.
Tucson psychologist Patricia Tanner Halverson calls them "Swiss cheese learners."
"You never know from one day to the next if the child is going to have the information," she said.
Tanner Halverson is recognized internationally for her work with FAS and FAE children.
"Ten years ago I was aware of some problems of FAS at the reservation where I was working, so I wrote a grant for a project," she said. "I wanted to find methods and strategies effective in teaching these children."
For the last several years, Tanner Halverson has developed strategies and shared them with teachers throughout the world.
"I've helped them arrange their classrooms and work stations so they are non-distracting, helping the kids to focus."
Tanner Halverson said the way a classroom is set up is critical, down to the lighting.
"You need to reduce visual stimulus, so they can stay on task," she said. "They don't have the internal structure in their brains you and I have, and we must provide it for them."
Tanner Halverson stressed that brain damage caused by maternal drinking is permanent.
"It's a lifelong disability. It's brain damage that's created when the brain is developing, and you can't fix it. It literally damages the neuropathways."
But teachers can help students learn to their maximum potential, she said.
"It's critical to get them into highly structurd programs where we teach habits and compensatory strategies," she said. "And you need to encourage and support, but don't push. If we have low expectations of our children, they will live up to that."
Tanner Halverson has met some amazing parents who devote their lives to helping their children through school and life.
"There are parents who fight tooth and nail for special ed, and whatever services they can get their child into," she said. "Many parents are obsessed with their children. When these children have somebody obsessed with them, that means they may lead a reasonably happy life. But how many of us are willing to do this, to devote so much time and effort for our children?"
Many of these children become depressed at a young age, she said.
"Other kids pick on them, call them names," she explained. "They can't read well, they can't do math well. They don't even know if they're hot or cold or hungry.
"When the realization hits them that this is a life-long disabilty and it most likely is not going to get much better, it can be very depressing," she said.
"They just keep trying and trying and trying and comes the morning that it dawns on them that this is the way it is. I'm never going to be able to go to college and become a doctor. They get depressed after years and years of failing. There is a high suicide rate among people with FAS and FAE."
Although some people with FAE are able to go on to college and lead productive lives, the odds are against it, Tanner Halverson said.
Hyperactivity is a major problem for about 80 percent of those with FAS and FAE.
Some take Ritalin. "It's like a magic pill with some. With others it does nothing at all," Tanner Halverson said.
"They have a hard time staying on task," she continued. "They have serious memory problems. They have little ability to generalize. They have a real lack of common sense. They'll come out with this stuff and you'll just wonder, 'Where did that come from?' Their reasoning is peculiar."
Their friendliness in childhood can cause them problems as well.
"They are fun-loving, spontaneous, affectionate children," Tanner Halverson said. "They are generally very touchy-feely. They're in-your-space, in-your-face kinds of kids. They get put down for that."
Gail Harris, who has worked with alcohol-damaged children since the 1970s, has studied their language skills.
"Their expressive language is often quite advanced," Harris said. "It's kind of like cocktail party chatter. They know what to say but don't have a lot of comprehension. It gives an illusion that they are more capable than they are."
Harris said it is important to educate teachers about how to work with these children.
"It's important that teachers know they are dealing with a disability, not a defiant child," she explained. "It's important that parents and teachers know children are not doing this to make life miserable."
"We need to provide better teacher education," she said. "Our teacher preparation is the same as it was 23 years ago when I was in school, but the world has really changed. We need to educate ourselves on ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), FAS and FAE. Teachers can come up with strategies to work with these kids."