How to Explain FAS Behaviors

Q: How do I explain the behavior problems my child has to other children, who tend to not understand the way I do?

A: I would explain FAS to the other children rather like I would explain it to my child, with frank honesty, and without judgment or blame.

I recall the positive experience I had explaining FAS to the neighborhood children when John was younger, and later with his high school peers. My discussion with both John and with other children boils down to three simple statements: Everyone has problems and limitations; John's problem is FAS; John has some really great talents and gifts as well. This is how my little talk might go:

State fact #1: Everyone has problems and/or disabilities. One person has diabetes, another has high blood pressure, another has depression. These are not visible to others but they cause distress and difficulties for the individual who has one of them. One person might have spina bifida, another might have cerebral palsy, another might have parkinson's disease. These are more noticeable to others. One person might have cancer, another might have Bipolar disorder, another might have ADHD. Some problems are more serious than others. One person might be hard of hearing, another person might be deaf. One person might need glasses to read, another person might be blind. Some problems are more obvious than others. But EVERYBODY has some sort of problem, whether we are aware of it or not. What kind of problems do YOU have?

State fact #2: You notice that Johnny has a lot of inappropriate (rude, loud, annoying) behaviors. Do you ever wonder why he has more of these behaviors than other kids? Johnny has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (effects, whatever). This happened before he was even born. When his birth mother was pregnant with him, she drank alcohol and the alcohol went into Johnny and damaged little parts of his brain. She didn't mean to do this, she didn't know this was harmful. So parts of Johnny's brain don't always work right. And this affects Johnny's behavior. Because Johhny's brain doesn't always work right, he can't always control what he says or what he does. He might do things without thinking about the consequences. He might make decisions without being able to guess right about the results. He might forget the rules or what you just told him, and needs lots of reminders. He might act really immature like a little kid. He might be rude or silly. Sometimes he can control his behavior and sometimes he can't. It is very frustrating for us when he cannot control his behavior. But it is very frustrating for Johhny too. Because he really wants to have friends and he wants to make others happy, but sometimes he does things that make other angry, and he gets in trouble, even when he is trying to be good. There are things that help Johnny have control, like the right medications, and a quiet house, and foods that don't have additives. Sometimes things that happen around him will make it hard for him to keep control, like teasing, or yelling, or fighting, or changes in plans, or too much music, or too many people in the room. Maybe there are things that we can do to make things easier for Johnny. Maybe we can be role models for Johnny with respectful, mature behavior. What do you think?

State fact #3: Even though Johnny has this disability called FAS, he also has some really cool talents. Did you know that Johnny is really good at music (art, mechanics, whatever)? I'll bet if you asked him, he might play a song (draw a picture, build a lego set) for you. Johnny is really friendly most of the time. And he forgives easily, and doesn't hold a grudge. He really likes playing with you, and wants to be friends. What can we do to be a good friend to Johnny?

How this conversation goes depends on the age person you are talking about, or if there are mental health issues (RAD or Bipolar might require a different dialogue). You would adjust it to the age level of the other kids. And of course, you would have this conversation with the affected person as well. Separately first, then maybe all discuss it together. When John was 18 and still in high school, there was an incoming class of 14-year-olds one year, and I spent one hour at the beginning of the school year talking to them about Johnny and his issues. For the entire year, there were no significant behavior problems, and theother students were kind and accepting and helpful in a way that was not condescending. There was pretty much the same caring response from his peers, whether they were typical kids or other kids with disabilities.

The key, I think, is adequate information presented in a non-judgmental way, with an emphasis on the neurological origins of the behaviors. You might consider using the FAS and the Brain brochure or the Aint' Misbehavin' brochure. Acceptance will make life easier for everyone. Maybe this article on the AAA's of FAS will be helpful as well.

--Teresa Kellerman

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