The overlooked toll of drinking alcohol while pregnant

Estimates suggest up to 5 percent of people in the U.S. have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Here's how scientists and activists are working toward better diagnoses and treatments.

Joel Sheagren knew when he adopted his son that the birth mother had consumed alcohol while pregnant. But the boy, Sam, wasn’t born with any obvious signs of developmental damage, so Joel wasn’t worried about it. Two years later, he and his wife adopted a daughter from the same mother.

Both children had been exposed to alcohol in utero, but as they got older, only Sam seemed to have trouble learning or following directions. Now a teenager, Sam has difficulty remembering what he was told a day before and understanding sequences of events. He’s a talented soccer player, explains Joel, but he needs to be reminded regularly about what may need to happen between the moment he passes the ball and the moment his team scores a goal.

When Sam was a teenager, Joel took him to a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder diagnostic clinic in Minnesota. “It wasn't until 14 years into our son’s life that we really started to connect the dots,” that the prenatal exposure to alcohol affected his development and behavior, says Sheagren, a filmmaker in Minnesota. He was surprised. “This is such a prevalent issue,” he says. “How come I didn’t know?”

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