UW program helps kids with fetal alcohol syndrome




Posted on May 1, 2010 at 11:28 AM

Whether he's entertaining classmates with his halftime talents or thrilling them with his lip synching talent, 14-year-old Brandan Gelo isn't letting fetal alcohol syndrome stop him. That doesn't surprise his adoptive mother.

"Just having a diagnosis, just having, you know, prenatal alcohol exposure doesn't equate to a certain outcome," said Brandan's adoptive mother, Julie.

The Gelo family includes eight foster and adopted children who were exposed to alcohol and drugs in the womb. Brandan and Tessa are two of them.

Julie Gelo heads the family advocate program for a special clinic at the University of Washington. It's where most of her kids were diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

The diagnosis was developed at the UW in 1968. Researchers discovered distinct facial features, such as smaller eyes and thin upper lips, in kids whose mothers drank during pregnancy. 

"The more severe the facial features, the more severe the cognitive problems, and the structural damage that you can see if you did an MRI of their brain," said Dr. Susan Astley, who directs the statewide network of FAS clinics.

She says the disorder leaves kids shorter than peers and affects how they think and behave. But each child is different.

"Some children have low IQ's. Some have normal IQ's. Some have memory problems, some don't. Many of them have attention deficit problems. Many of them experience problems with planning, organization, that sort of thing," said Dr. Astley.

The Gelo family has dealt with all those issues. Julie, in her role at the clinic, connects other parents to resources and interventions that make home and school go more smoothly.

Tessa's favorite is a group for FAS teens who struggle with maintaining friendships. 

"I go to the social skills group, and like if you have a problem you can talk about it," said 17-year-old Tessa.

All supports that help these kids and others like them find their way.

Because more mother avoid alcohol during pregnancy, the number of kids born with fetal alcohol syndrome has gone down steadily in Washington state.

More information

FAS Diagnostic &  Prevention Network

NOFAS Washington State

CDC FAS information