FAS and critical thinking

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Recently, I assigned the students in my psychology class to think critically, not cynically. To question everything written or heard from friends, media and particularly from me. I asked the class to scientifically examine what is real, hearsay, wives-tales and preconceived notions of what one might believe to be fact.

I asked the class if they believe the following to be true or false based on their present knowledge.

Going outside on a cold day without wearing a coat will cause a child to catch the cold virus?

Massive loss of brain tissue early in life may have minimal long-term effects?

Electroconvulsive (shock) therapy is often a very effective treatment for severe depression?

Sleepwalkers are not acting out their dreams and sleep talkers are not verbalizing their dreams?

Most people do not remember accurately what happens each day of their life?

As the students in my class discover through research of peer reviewed science, all of the above statements are true.

Now for a test of critical thinking. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students diagnosed with a disability has increased more than 75 percent in the past 35 years. Why?

Students in this class offer many ideas - over-diagnosis of children with disabilities, better diagnostic tools to detect disabilities, the formation of the Americans with Disabilities Act creates awareness and protection for students with disabilities or possibly something in the environment has changed to create more children who now have disabilities.

I assign you the task of thinking critically of this last idea. Has something in the environment changed to create more children who now have disabilities?

As I examine changes in our environment I first explore the increase in drug and alcohol use in the United States and discover the increase is in line with the increase of disabilities in children.

My first caution is not to infer cause and effect. Because these two causes, the increase of disabilities in children and drug and alcohol use of Americans increase at the same rate and during the same time, I must not assume there is a correlation. Science is required.

Allow me to offer the following research from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

* Why alcohol is dangerous

FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) is the leading known cause for intellectual disabilities (previously known as mental retardation). When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her unborn baby. Alcohol in the mother's blood passes through the placenta to the baby through the umbilical cord.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and a range of lifelong disorders, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Children with FASDs might have the following characteristics and behaviors:

Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (this ridge is called the philtrum)

Small head size

Shorter-than-average height

Low body weight

Poor coordination

Hyperactive behavior

Difficulty paying attention

Poor memory

Difficulty in school (especially with math)

Learning disabilities

Speech and language delays

Intellectual disability or low IQ

Poor reasoning and judgment skills

Sleep and sucking problems as a baby

Vision or hearing problems

Problems with the heart, kidney or bones

There is no known safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy. Drinking alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy can cause the baby to have abnormal facial features. Growth and central nervous system problems (e.g., low birth weight, behavioral problems) can occur from drinking alcohol anytime during pregnancy. The baby's brain is developing throughout pregnancy and can be damaged at any time.

Good science from a trusted source offers facts about the consumption of alcohol while a woman is pregnant. Most of the characteristics and behaviors are the same disorders used to detect an intellectual disability by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. So, can I now say the increase in disabilities are due to the increase in drug and alcohol use in the United States over the past 35 years? Not yet.

There are two things I believe based on my research. First; there is a correlation between the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy and the development of an intellectual disability. Secondly; many of the intellectual disabilities look a lot like ADHD, some autism spectrum disorders and disabilities children have trying to learn.

I challenge my class to examine these beliefs and a few more. Does the consumption of illegal drugs play the same role as alcohol in the development of a fetus? Are children misdiagnosed as having ADHD, autism or an intellectual disability instead of FAS? Lastly; how can we help children struggling with a disability who are possibly misdiagnosed or undiagnosed?

The difficulty with FAS and drug affected children is the parent seldom discloses that they drank heavily or used drugs while pregnant. For this reason, I'm not sure we will ever be able to discern the difference.

Can I say drug and alcohol use during pregnancy causes disabilities in children? No. Can I say there is a correlation between drug and alcohol use during pregnancy and an increase in disabilities in children? Yes; if I think critically, not cynically.

If you wish to comment or offer suggestions, please email Bill Rutherford at bprutherford@hotmail.com.

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