Alcohol is not safe for developing babies. When it is consumed by a mother during pregnancy, it can lead to birth defects and neurobehavioral deficits, such as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Fetal alcohol syndrome is common. Close to 1 out of every 100 babies in the U.S. and Western Europe is born with FAS.

Autism and fetal alcohol syndrome share a lot of the same traits and characteristics. They can also occur in the same person.

Children with FAS are often misdiagnosed with autism, as the two disorders have some similarities.

Does Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Cause Autism?

There is no known specific cause of autism, although it is believed that both genetics and environmental aspects play a role. Fetal alcohol syndrome only occurs in babies whose mothers drank during pregnancy. While there can be some overlap between FAS and autism, and the two disorders can occur simultaneously, they are separate conditions.

Alcohol is not good for a developing fetus. For a brain developing in the womb, this exposure can lead to intellectual deficits, behavioral problems, learning difficulties, issues with motor skills, and hyperactivity.

While alcohol exposure can cause neurodevelopmental conditions such as FAS, evidence does not support that it can cause autism. Babies and children with FAS can have autism-like symptoms, however.

Research is ongoing to discover the direct causes of autism. There is speculation that exposure to toxins in utero can be a factor in the development of the disorder. If alcohol is introduced to babies who are genetically predisposed to autism during pregnancy, it may increase the risk for autism.

At this point, there is no direct link proving that alcohol and fetal alcohol syndrome can cause autism in someone not already predisposed genetically to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If certain genetic vulnerabilities are present, alcohol consumption during pregnancy may be a risk factor.

Overlap Between Autism & Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Autism and fetal alcohol syndrome often share many of the same traits. Both are neurodevelopmental disorders that lead to difficulties socializing, learning, communicating, and with motor skills.

These conditions may be comorbid, as people with fetal alcohol syndrome show autism traits nearly three-quarters of the time. FAS is often mistaken for autism spectrum disorder.

Some of the overlapping traits for autism and fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Difficulties socializing and with social communication skills.
  • Trouble making and keeping friends.
  • Attention deficits.
  • Slower development. 
  • Impulsivity and problems understanding consequences.
  • Avoidance of eye contact.
  • Difficulties with transitions.
  • Sensitivity to touch.
  • Issues regulating emotions, leading to mood swings and/or temper tantrums.
  • Being exceptionally skilled in one specific area or field.

Differences between fetal alcohol syndrome and autism can be observed. For example, children with FAS are often more interested in their peers and have more of a desire to be social. Children with autism tend to prefer to play alone, often with little to no interest in their peers.

Children with autism frequently have restrictive and repetitive interests and behaviors. They have difficulties understanding and relating to others’ emotions. Those with fetal alcohol syndrome report feeling different from others.

Issues Related to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome, like autism, is a spectrum disorder. The level of severity and disability can range greatly from person to person.

In addition to the autism-like traits already listed, some of the issues related to FAS include:

  • Low birth weight.
  • Smaller than average stature.
  • Distorted facial features.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Attention deficits.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Memory issues.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Low IQ.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Difficulties sucking as an infant.
  • Heart, bone, and kidney problems.
  • Language and speech delays.
  • Hearing and vision problems.
  • Depression later in life.

Treatment Options for FAS & Autism

Treatments for fetal alcohol syndrome and autism include:

  • Speech and language therapy.
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Educational therapy.
  • Behavioral therapies.
  • Family therapies.
  • Alternative and holistic treatment methods.

Typically, a range of different therapy types can help to target various aspects of fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.

Speech and language therapies focus on language delays, helping to improve both verbal and nonverbal communication. Occupational therapies aid in the development of fine and gross motor skills while teaching social and self-care skills as well. Educational therapy is often necessary for children with FAS to address learning disabilities and cognitive delays in order to help these children academically.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is considered the front-line treatment for autism. This therapy modality can help to shape behaviors in a positive way. It is flexible and adaptable to fit each child’s unique needs and circumstances. ABA helps to improve and reinforce desired behaviors while minimizing undesirable ones.

Family therapies can help entire families learn how to manage fetal alcohol syndrome and autism spectrum disorder by providing education, information on what to expect, and resources on how to best support a family member with FAS and/or ASD. Alternative and holistic methods, such as yoga, creative arts therapies, relaxation therapy, and meditation, can also help to decrease stress and improve the ability to self-regulate.

The specifics of each treatment plan will vary for each person based on specific goals and the level of severity of each disorder. A comprehensive treatment plan is set up with family input by a medical and mental health intervention team that can include the child’s pediatrician, a pediatric psychologist and/or psychiatrist, a speech and language pathologist, occupational therapists, teachers, caregivers, and behavior therapists.

Early Intervention for Autism & FAS

The only way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is if the mother does not drink during pregnancy.

When autism is also present in a child, early intervention services and treatment options ensure that they are able to have the best chances of treatment success. Early intervention for autism can help to minimize symptoms, improve daily life functioning, and enhance overall quality of life.

Both FAS and autism are lifelong disorders with no cures. However, theearlier a child receives treatment services, the higher the odds are for a happy, fulfilling, and healthy life.

Talk to your child’s doctor about getting your child evaluated for FAS and/or autism as soon as you have any concerns. Early treatment can make a big difference for your child.