Fetal Alcohol Spectrum and Autism Spectrum Disorders

© 2005 Teresa Kellerman, amended 2007


Section 1.  Section 36-551, Arizona Revised Statutes: 36-551. Definitions

7.  "Autism" means a condition characterized by severe disorders in communication and behavior resulting in limited ability to communicate, understand, learn and participate in social relationships.


There are several types of Autism that together with Aspergerís Syndrome fall under the category of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).


There are several types of disorders caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol that together with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) fall under the category of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).


Both FASD and ASD are part of a broader category of pervasive developmental disorders (PDD).  Individuals with both types of disorders have developmental disabilities (DD).


There may be an overlap of the two diagnoses.  Some children have Autism and a fetal alcohol disorder.  It is possible that some cases of Autism are indeed caused by prenatal alcohol exposure, just as many cases of ADHD are caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.  It is assumed that Autism can be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. (1)  

There is evidence that prenatal exposure to alcohol may be a factor in autism (2).


Possible environmental factors that might contribute to the development of an Autism disorder include infections, errors in metabolism, lead or mercury poisoning, and prenatal alcohol exposure. (3)  Of those individuals with diagnosable FASD, only 15% have an IQ under 70 that would qualify them for DD services under the category of mental retardation.  However, the other 85% have symptoms that would qualify them under the category of Autism.  They all have characteristics described in the ARS definition for Autism (above).  In fact, many psychologists write in their reports that individuals with FASD have symptoms of Autism, and many actually receive that diagnosis.  It is believed that many of those individuals diagnosed with high functioning Autism or with Aspergerís Syndrome actually have an invisible form of FASD.


Children with FASD and ASD are often grouped together in educational and therapeutic programs.  Intervention strategies for children with Autism are often applied to children with FASD, and vice versa. (4, 5, 6)


Please do not misunderstand what is stated here.  This does not claim that all Autism is caused by alcohol.  This does not claim that FASD is the same as Autism.  This does suggest that some cases of Autism are related to alcohol exposure.  The main point is that both FASD and Autism are part of the disability category of pervasive developmental disorders, and as such FASD should be included under the Autism group to meet the criteria for services for persons with developmental disabilities, because the criteria required under Arizona Revised Statues for Autism are present in FASD.


Without appropriate services, individuals with FASD are at high risk (94%) of developing secondary disorders that are likely to lead to arrest, addiction, homelessness, injury, or early death.  The secondary conditions require programs that are much more costly than protective services that could be provided by the DD system. (7, 8)


1.       http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/Autism/detail_Autism.htm#33093082  

2.  Nanson, Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1992;16:558.

3.  Farber JM. Autism and other communication disorders. In: Capute AJ, Accardo PJ, eds. Developmental disabilities in infancy and childhood. 2d ed. Baltimore, Md.: Brookes, 1996:347-64.

4. http://www.fasiceberg.org/newsletters/Vol14Num2_Apr2004.htm

5. http://www.research4children.org/admin/contentx/default.cfm?PageId=182

6. http://ericec.org/faq/pdd-faq.html

7. http://www.come-over.to/FAS/fasconf.htm

8. http://www.fascenter.samhsa.gov/gg/economicCostsOfFAS.cfm

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