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Territory trains FASD diagnosis team

A pool of local doctors and psychologists in the Yukon are being trained to diagnose adults with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

A pool of local doctors and psychologists in the Yukon are being trained to diagnose adults with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

The new team will begin training at the end of January and start seeing its first client in March, the Health Department announced this week.

Since 2004, FASD assessments for children have been taking place at Child Development Centre in Whitehorse. The government has funded the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon (FASSY) to bring in an assessment team from outside Yukon to assess adults.

Between 2004 and 2013 an average of six adults were assessed a year. Having local staff able to conduct these assessments should mean that more people can be seen.

Getting assessed means more than coming away with a label of “FASD” or not, explained Jan Langford, a senior policy advisor with the Health Department.

Assessments look at how people function in day-to-day life and what supports might be put in place to make things easier.

“It’s going to give a person an idea of what their strengths are, how they learn, how they communicate, what supports they might find useful in their life to make them successful,” Langford said.

Similar to the assessment for children, adults will be seen by a team made up of a doctor, a psychologist and a co-ordinator.

FASD is a permanent brain injury caused when a mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy. It can cause impaired judgment, an inability to control impulsive behaviour and an impaired ability to understand the consequences of their actions.

The assessments include tests for motor and sensory skills, attention span, memory and social skills.

It’s hard to say how long the assessments will take, Langford said. They include gathering medical history, and about six hours of psychological testing. But that can be spread out over time to suit a client’s needs.

Screening will also be done for mental health concerns and substance abuse issues.

“They’re seen as secondary disabilities that might come from the fact that the person has had such a rough time in their life and their coping mechanism are getting into the substance abuse and that sort of thing,” Langford said.

There is no single way of diagnosing people with FASD in Canada. The Yukon is still working on exactly what its method will look like.

Some models require having the mother to confirm she drank while pregnant. Getting that confirmation gets more difficult as a person gets older, Langford said.

In those cases someone might come away with a diagnosis like “alcohol-related neurobehavioral disorder.” That diagnosis doesn’t require the prenatal alcohol exposure, “but its clear that the person has organic brain damage that’s resulting in these kind of problems,” Langford said.

There’s still a lot of stigma around a diagnosis of FASD. But seeing it as a medical problem is important, said Langford. The Yukon team will be very non judgmental of client or their family, she said.

“I think having it being seen as just one other medical diagnosis is important. The same with mental health issues. If we can just see it as this is just another injury or hurt or illness.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at