Brain Domains

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can affect any one of nine brain domains. To get an official FASD diagnosis, three domains must be affected. Roll over the brain to learn about each domain and how an FASD brain works.

Academic Achievement

Ability to keep up with grade level reading, writing and math skills.
• Often are visual instead of verbal learners, so a teacher talking just doesn’t register.
• Tries hard in class but just doesn’t get it.
• Poor study skills, seen as slow or behind.

Social Adaptive

Ability to navigate daily life, communicate effectively, make and keep friends, respond to social cues and cope with change.
• Impulsive, often blurts out things inappropriately, always seems to be in trouble. Sexually inappropriate. Lacks empathy.
• Easily led and manipulated, eager to please, which could lead to compulsive lying.
• Often seems immature or plays with younger kids.

Executive Functioning

A big one — the ability to set a realistic goal, get organized and achieve it. Also, the ability to look ahead and see the consequences of your actions or take a lesson learned in one situation and apply it elsewhere.
• Doesn’t know right from wrong. For example, doesn’t know the difference between stolen, borrowed or found.
• Often needs step-by-step instructions for tasks most people find intuitive, like doing the dishes.
• Seems willfully disobedient or maliciousness. "Just doesn’t get it."


Ability to speak and use grammar and proper sentence structure and put thoughts and feelings into words.
• Delays in speech.
• Stories or thoughts don’t make sense or are repetitive.
• Can’t follow multi-step instructions.


Ability to remember and retrieve short and long term information.
• Can’t remember simple things, like how to do chores or where an item is.
• Can’t do more than one thing at a time.
• Slow to come up with answers, so they make them up.

Brain Structure/Motor skills

Ability to use and coordinate large and fine muscles.
• Late to walk, tie shoes, ride a bike.
• Clumsy, poor posture, messy handwriting


Ability to process, filter and make sense of all the information being thrown at your five senses.
• Overly sensitive to light and sound, such as loud classrooms, video games or even the buzz from fluorescent lights.
• Extra sensitive to touch and texture, even spicy foods, scratchy sweaters or too much air conditioning. Or the opposite — not sensitive enough to pain.
• Often seen as cranky or aggressive, or just shuts down.


Thinking ability, especially abstract thinking.
• Trouble with abstract concepts like money and time.
• Thinks more slowly and needs time to process. May only understand every third word people say. Makes people with FASD seem stupid or slow when they are just processing.
• Could have a low IQ, but many people with FASD have normal IQs.

Attention Regulation

Ability to stay focused for a sustained period, or return to a task when distracted.
• Easily distracted by clutter, nicknacks, posters on the wall or people walking by.
• Can’t sit still. Fidgets and bothers others. Needs calming rituals like body rocking or squishy balls to stay focused.
• Often seen as disruptive, hyperactive or fidgety.

  • Half in poll unsure what causes FASD

    Nearly nine in every 10 Manitobans has heard of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

  • Warning lost on many moms

    The number of Winnipeg women who say they drank while pregnant is on the rise, with especially alarming rates in Point Douglas and Transcona.

  • When drink destroys: Fetal alcohol leaves nobody untouched

    FASD is the leading cause of developmental disabilities in the developed world. It affects more people than Down syndrome and autism combined. In Manitoba alone, an estimated 11,000 people live with it, including 2,000 kids.

  • U of M partners with Israeli university to study FASD

    WINNIPEG - The province has earmarked $750,000 for a new FASD research partnership between the University of Manitoba and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

  • Thousands of lives, billions of dollars

    Some call them million-dollar babies. Others refer to it as a multibillion-dollar problem. Any way you slice it, when a child in Canada is born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the bills pile up.

  • One brother prospered, one died

    The newborn came home from the hospital not with that new-baby scent but the smell of the poison his mom was hooked on. "The solvents were coming out of his pores," said Val Surbey, recalling the baby they fostered, who had FASD so bad she could smell it. Surbey has lived with the full spectrum of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

  • The brain and alcohol: Still a mystery

    As pediatrician and FASD expert Sterling Clarren likes to say, "The big, important message is that alcohol does not affect a small piece of the brain. It affects everything.

  • It need not be a life sentence

    FASD isn't an excuse for crime, and it isn't a life sentence. But for many experts, including Manitoba's top RCMP officer, the statistics suggest crime rates could be dramatically curbed if people with FASD got the right help early on or if FASD could be prevented in the first place.

  • A sufferer's advice: 'Get help'

    NORWAY HOUSE -- As a single mom with a social work degree, a good job, beautiful kids and a supportive ex, Adelaide Muswagon seemed to be doing OK. On the surface, she seemed to have it all together. But deep down, it kept running off the rails. Muswagon drank while she was pregnant with her youngest son and Ethan was born with a number of challenges.

  • Winnipeg division has model programs

    If you're a kid with FASD, you better hope you live in the Winnipeg School Division. Its programs and classes are a model for teachers across the country, the province and the rest of the division.

  • How FASD affects behaviour

    Imagine having no common sense. You take your pills today but don't realize you must take them again tomorrow. You break into a house and the cops find you eating chips in front of the TV. Money is an abstract concept, so you give yours away to anyone who asks. When people say "I'll be there in a second" you think they really will. For many people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, that's what life is like.