Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the phenomenon of children born with birth defects as a result of a pregnant mother’s consumption of alcohol, may have only come to the attention of Northern educators in recent years, but measures are now being taken to help these kids.

Says Dorothy Nicholls, Vice-Principal of Mistissini’s Voyager Elementary School: “It’s only in the last four to five years that we started to be aware that children had a problem. We did not know what it was because it was never diagnosed.”

These children, says Nicholls, have “short attention spans and shortened memory spans – they were being taught something and had to have the same thing repeated within five to ten minutes.”

Learning difficulties are a prime characteristic of FAS children. When the situation presented itself, Nicholls and her teaching staff were looking for answers, she says.

“So they [the teachers] went to a workshop last year and shared the things that they were aware of that was happening with some of their students,” said Nicholls. “They realized it was fetal alcohol effects.”

“The fact of the matter is that these children are different and have special needs,” says Nicholls “They are not retarded, but they are very agitated. We notice that they cannot sit still, they have to run around the classroom all the time and if it’s misdiagnosed then the child is going through a rough time.”

The Learning Associates of Montreal is a non-profit organization founded by a group of professionals dedicated to helping children, adolescents, adults and families cope with learning difficulties. The group has worked in consultation with the Cree School Board and the Cree community.

“We go to each community,” says Learning Associates educator Fiona Hellstrom. “Once a year for the anglophone community and once a year for the francophone team but we are available and there is follow up through the special education services department.”

When it comes to treatment, says Hellstrom, “We feel that it’s very, very important for the parents to be informed as to what we are doing in the school and that they get to know us and that they feel comfortable with us and that they can call us at any time if they have other questions and so we always meet with them.”

She contends that some things need to be done differently for children with FAS in a classroom setting. Routine, says Hellstrom, is essential for FAS sufferers.

“Structure usually helps those kinds of kids,” she observes. “They [parents and teachers] may have to protect their kids when they are younger more than if the kids are sort of just going around in the community. They are going to have to do special things to make sure that their child is safe because if their child is very impulsive they can do things like jump from a tree or go in the water or do things so they often need more protection.”

According to Barbara Bobrow, The Learning Associates’ Coordinator of Professional Services, “socially they can be very vulnerable too because someone could talk them into things. So you have to protect them that way and they are not good with time and money.”

However, says Barbrow, “The more support they get at an early age, the better. If you can teach routines and social skills, the kinds of things they have to do in daily life, the better it is for them.”

Barbrow also suggests “giving them lots of warnings like, ‘We are going to be going for recess.’ They need to be pre-warned when things are going to change is one thing we can do. Then they don’t have some of the upsets and the temper tantrums that can really cause disruption.”

As a teacher and administrator, Dorothy Nicholls isn’t sure if FAS children will ever be able to lead a normal life, “but at least we know how to deal with them in a classroom now.”

Nicholls is also concerned about prevention in the communities so that more children do not needlessly suffer, however. “We have some very young mothers in Grade 11 and 12,” she notes. “Most of the time children are conceived through the use of alcohol or drugs of some type where the girl is not as aware of what is happening.”

Knowledge is what Nicholls thinks is most essential. “We have to train our young people so they know that if you drink or do drugs while you are pregnant there is a lot of damage. I think we need to do a lot of work there, including at school.”

As someone who has seen and dealt with FAS children, Nicholls believes that community action is in order and that families need “to make sure that they get the information and share it with both their sons and daughters.

“I raised three boys but I didn’t think, ‘Oh well, they will never get into trouble because they are boys.’ They can also contribute to fetal alcohol effects. If it’s in their systems then they can be transmitting it to the womb. We know that now. We did not know that before. The girl might not be the sole member who is affecting the baby; it can also be the father.”

Most importantly, she could not stress enough the importance of families taking care of each other as a means of preventing FAS. “I think we should take a good look at the children and especially the girls. You know, keep them beside you for a while. They need some training… morals are very low right now and I think parents should be very aware and these young girls need to be taken care of up to a certain age and then they can decide on their own [about sex].”

Above all, if you think that your child may be suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Nicholls cautioned, “Don’t hide in the bush!”