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Taking action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Over the last two years we have been supporting the implementation of the Ministry of Health’s Taking Action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: 2016–2019: An action plan.

Our particular focus has been on the development of training and resources for frontline professionals who regularly encounter individuals with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and their whānau. 

FASD workshop pilot

In the middle of 2019 we rolled out the pilot phase, which took our project team across the country from Kaitaia to Dunedin delivering workshops.

The two pilot sites were intentionally quite different, but the issues facing the communities and the warmth and passion of the professionals in the room were one in the same.

The workshops were intentionally aimed at a range of frontline professionals and we had people from across the community coming together to learn, talk and build connections.

This included classroom teachers, special education staff, clinicians, support workers, police officers, probation workers, people involved in youth justice and youth support, Oranga Tamariki, social workers, nurses and addiction practitioners.

It was a unique experience to have so many people from different sectors offering their perspectives, considering ways of changing professional practice and thinking about how they might be able to plan and work together. 

Developing an understanding and response to FASD

We are only in the early stages of developing an understanding and response to FASD in New Zealand.

We still don’t have domestic prevalence data, but we know that the accepted, conservative, international prevalence rate is 2–5% of the population, meaning that up to nearly a quarter of a million kiwis are living with FASD right now.

The first multi-disciplinary assessment only took place in New Zealand ten years ago and there are only seven functioning diagnostic teams within the public health system now, located across five DHB regions in the North Island. All of these teams work exclusively with children and youth, with adults needing to rely on private assessment.

We have no specialist services available for people with FASD and, because the majority of people score in the borderline/average/above average levels of IQ, they may be ineligible for MOH Disability Support Services and may struggle to access key support through the Ministry of Education as well.

Recognising and supporting people’s primary disabilities

The reality is that the current system fails to recognise and support people’s primary disabilities early in life, leading to a range of secondary disabilities and negative life outcomes. For example, across the lifespan:

  • 61% will be excluded from school
  • 60% will get into trouble with the law
  • 50% will be confined at some point in their life (prison, compulsory care)
  • 35% will develop an alcohol or drug use disorder
  • 94% will experience a mental health diagnosis by adulthood

These figures show that much of our workforce are already regularly working with people with FASD, whether they know it or not. We hope that resources and training available from Te Pou will support them to recognise FASD and consider ways of responding more compassionately in their roles.

Developing knowledge and resources

As we move ahead, we have a long way to go. Our clinical workforce is just developing, our non-clinical workforce needs more knowledge and resources, and we need to take a more community-based approach to embed this knowledge across other sectors.

We are in a privileged position to be involved with this piece of work and recognise how FASD is a focal point that impacts equally across our mental health, addiction and disability workforces. 

If you would like more information on FASD, please complete our Introduction to FASD e-learning course.

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