WILLMAR -- A baby doll with scrawny legs and a misshapen face was passed from hand to hand Thursday, giving participants at the seventh annual Community Conference on the Brain an idea of what infants with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders look like.
Kari Fletcher knows firsthand what it looks like. She also knows how children act when they have permanent brain damage caused by a mother's consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.
The Mankato woman grew up with four adopted siblings who were prenatally exposed to alcohol.
She and her husband have adopted two young children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
"It is a lifetime," Fletcher said, describing the neurological damage. "It doesn't go away."
Fletcher also works with the Minnesota Organization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is striving to prevent birth defects brought on by mothers drinking during pregnancy. The organization also provides support for families who are living with those defects.
"Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders" is the umbrella term for defects related to prenatal alcohol exposure.
They can include the diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome, which has tell-tale facial features and small body size, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder and alcohol-related birth defects.
Fletcher's son doesn't have the facial features of fetal alcohol syndrome, but he does have the behavioral and learning disabilities of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Her child has a "beautiful face," is the same size as the other fifth-graders in his class and "looks normal," she said. "But this kid can rage and tear apart a classroom like you wouldn't believe."
Taken at face value, the actions of a child with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can be misinterpreted as being willfully disobedient, irresponsible, insensitive, bossy, annoying, disorganized, sloppy, too loud, distracting and pretending not to remember something just to make a person mad when, in fact, there is a neurological disconnect.
She carries cards in her purse that explain what the spectrum of disorders is and how it affects children. She's given those cards out two times after she endured the scornful stares of strangers as her children threw fits in stores, knowing that her children, and her own ability to be a good parent, were being judged.
She's met people who think that "love and stability" will solve the problems of a child with any of the disorders. It helps, she said, "but there's a whole lot more to it than that."
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are "100 percent avoidable," if women don't drink while pregnant, said Fletcher.
Binge drinking may be especially harmful, she said. "Mom and baby's blood-alcohol content is the same," she said, because alcohol crosses the placenta. But the mother has a "functioning liver" to process the alcohol. The babies "stay drunk longer," she said.
Because consuming alcohol during different stages of pregnancy can affect different parts of the prenatal brain and developmental, even light drinking can cause permanent damage, she said.
There is also the issue of resiliency. Some children "are like dandelions" and can go anywhere, said Fletcher. But others "are like orchids" and even minor changes can affect them for the rest of their lives.
For more information on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and the Minnesota Organization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, go to www.mofas.org.