UQ researcher heads to Canada to study major cause of child psychological issues

by Freya Lucas

October 17, 2019

University of Queensland (UQ) Associate Professor Deborah Askew will use her newly awarded Churchill Fellowship to visit urban First Nations communities in Canada and Alaska to learn more about a major cause of child psychological issues fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

 

FASD is widely acknowledged as being a high-risk factor for psychiatric problems in children, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, or both. 

 

Although the disorder is known within the Australian community, there has been limited research into its prevalence in Australia, with the Australian Medical Association stating “few accurate data sets on the prevalence of FASD in Australia are available but it is estimated that FASD affects roughly between 2 per cent and 5 per cent of the population in the United States.” 

 

As estimates of FASD prevalence continue to increase worldwide, it is likely that the prevalence of FASD in Australia is also higher than previously estimated.

 

The disorder manifests when a child is exposed to alcohol, in any amount, during the mother’s pregnancy. Those affected by FASD have a spectrum of symptoms as a result, and defects caused by the disorder are not reversible. 

 

The severity of FASD symptoms varies, with some children experiencing them to a larger degree than others. Signs and symptoms may include any mix of physical defects, intellectual or cognitive disabilities, and problems functioning and coping with daily life.

 

Children living with FASD are often initially diagnosed as having ADHD or a conduct disorder, and the pervasive behavioural and social issues which are present alongside the disorder can be challenging for those working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings to manage.  

 

Dr Askew said there was a lot more work which could be done in Australia to address the presence and effects of FASD, saying that while FASD is not specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the hurt and trauma associated with the ongoing negative impact of colonisation, discrimination and racism means that some people use alcohol to dull the pain”.

 

As such, she intends to use her visit to learn more about culturally appropriate and community-focused solutions in other First Nations communities, with the hope of learning more about how they may be applied in an Australian context. 

 

“Some amazing community-led programs have been established in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, but there are few programs in urban areas that have been published so that others can learn from them,” Dr Askew noted. 

 

Dr Askew said Canada had recognised the link between the Indian Residential School system, intergenerational trauma and the array of social ills plaguing the First Nations today, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder – issues which she says echo the legacy of Australian policies which have inflicted generational pain on First Nations Australians. 

 

“For some, there is an overuse of alcohol to dull the pain of grief, hurt and trauma that has been passed down through generations, in addition to everyday lived experiences of socio-political discrimination and disadvantage,” she said. 

 

More information about FASD in Australia may be found here. 

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