A $643,000 commitment from the Yukon government to study the prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the territory’s corrections population is being greeted as very good news by the local non-profit that works on the disorder.
“It’s a serious chunk of money. It’s coming directly from the Yukon government itself. That means there’s a fairly strong commitment on the part of the management board and cabinet to really understand this issue,” said Mike McCann, the executive director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon.
The study will take place over three years and will try to get a grip on how many people in the Yukon’s corrections system – from inmates to parolees and others – are struggling with what is often an invisible disease.
The disease is an insidious one because it can often be present even when those afflicted appear to be totally normal, McCann said. In some severe cases, there are certain identifying facial features, but many people suffer without anyone knowing about their challenges.
“It’s a disability. It’s a brain injury, really,” McCann explained, “but it’s often really hard to see.”
“You wouldn’t yell at a blind person, or say they are being non-compliant because they can’t read the chalkboard, or be upset with someone in a wheelchair because they can’t stand up when you ask them to,” said McCann.
Another challenge for people with FASD is that they may be able to carry on a totally normal conversation, including understanding instructions or decisions, but as soon as they walk out the door, it all vanishes.
“Because of the inability to sequence events or understand abstract concepts, they walk out and forget the entire thing,” McCann said.
“They may present like a 20-year-old adult, but they may be functioning at an eight-year-old’s mental capacity,” he said. This often makes victims easy to manipulate or influence.
When you apply those challenges to a situation like a meeting with a parole officer, it’s easy to see how someone could appear to be willfully ignoring instructions when really they don’t remember the conversation.
There is no shortage of anecdotes to suggest that FASD is more common in prison and correctional populations, but there are no hard numbers. There are also many complicating factors like exposure to other drugs.
There also isn’t a lot of evidence about FASD prevalence for organizations like McCann’s to go on.
There was one study done by Health Canada that found about one per cent of Canadians suffer from FASD. Another study in Manitoba found that about 10 per cent of people who interacted with that province’s system likely suffered from the disability. But even getting a diagnosis for one person can be difficult, which contributes to the paucity of information on a whole, McCann said.
There are no clear numbers on the amount of Yukoners living with FASD.
In 1985, Dr. Kwadwo Asante found that 46 of 1,000 children in the Yukon he sampled had fetal alcohol syndrome – the more severe form of FASD. It’s associated with growth deficiencies and facial features like a thin upper lip and a flat philtrum (the ridge that runs between the nose and the mouth).
Rates found in other areas of Canada are much lower, at around one in 1,000 for FAS and one in 100 for FASD.
However, Asante’s study was criticized for not being representative. The numbers he crunched came from a small sample of children that were already suspected of having chronic diseases and disabilities.
Part of the difficulty arises because of how FASD happens. When pregnant mothers drink alcohol, the fetus’s brain development is impaired. The effects are partially dependent on a number of environmental factors, the amount of alcohol consumed and how long into her pregnancy the mother drinks, but direct links to time and amount have never really been proven. There’s no accepted safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.
If the mother won’t admit to drinking, or isn’t around to talk to, that can complicate the diagnosis process, McCann said. That’s also not the only complication. Adults who want a diagnosis must wait for specialists to fly north.
That only happens once a year. And the Yukon only has the capacity to do six or seven adult assessments.
At the Child Development Centre in Whitehorse, about 20 children are assessed each year. The newly-announced study will seek to get 150 adult assessments completed.
– With files from Vivian Belik.
Contact Jesse Winter at