Is it that the child won't?
Is it that the child can't?

by Diane Malbin

Beliefs dictate behaviors. The belief that many primary learning and behavioral characteristics which may reflect the underlying neuropathology associated with FAS/FAE are the result of willful, volitional or intentional behaviors often leads to punishment of these symptoms. Inadvertently, this may in turn result in the development of an array of secondary defensive behaviors. The chronic lack of a good 'fit' between the needs of those with FAS/FAE and their environments may lead to tertiary characteristics of school failure, mental health problems, running away, or trouble with the law. These are all believed to be preventable. The key to prevention is linking the idea of brain dysfunction with presenting behaviors, reframing perceptions, and moving from punishment to support. The shift is from seeing a child as one who "won't" do something to one who possibly "can't".
Primary Characteristics:
Standard Interpretation:
May Lead to Punishment
Secondary Defenses
or Characteristics

Memory problems

Could remember if they he/she tried

Fear, self protection

Inconsistent performance

Not trying on "off" days





Poor short term (auditory) memory

Not listening, paying attention

Anger, avoidance

Remembers some things, not others

Seen as lazy

Confusion, depression

"Gaps": Talks the talk, doesn't Walk the walk: disconnections

Willfully disobedient

More defensiveness

Can't link words with feelings

Seen as uncaring

Shut down, confusion

Forgets words, ideas

Doesn't try, could do it


Decodes, doesn't comprehend


Inferiority, fear, masking

Difficulty forming associations

Does it 'on purpose'

Internalizes negatives

Doesn't see similarities differences

"Should" know better!

Isolated, fearful

May not generalize or apply rules in new settings

"Trying to make me mad"

Masks mistakes, lies

Difficulty with abstractions: money, math, time

Has to know times tables!

Avoids homework

Poor planning, sequencing initiating, following through

Punished for not doing tasks

Feels blindsided, may not understand

Difficulty understanding danger


May shut down

Impulsive, suggestible

Daredevil, sociopath

Behaves accordingly

Can't see consequences

No conscience, punished

Blames others


Passive resistive

Irritability to rage

Long response time

Trying to be controlling

Gives up or acts out

Acts young for age

Too dependent, irresponsible


Socially "inappropriate"

Poor values, insensitive

Gravitates to "comfort" friends


Controlling, wants own way

Rigid, resistive



Discomfort, distress, whiny

No response, flat affect

Doesn't care

Lacks language to communicate clearly

Diane Malbin's website FASCETS

Similar Chart by Deb Evensen

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