Abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy is best FAS defense

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Dorothy Ahmakak-Pritchard is a volunteer at the Nikiski Senior Citizens Center, working in the kitchen several days a week to set up the salad bar. The 26-year-old also volunteers time at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Nikiski and has helped as a teacher's aide at Wings Christian Academy at Immanuel Baptist Church in Soldotna.

She leads a busy life, and her grandmother, Jody Pritchard, says she is a "success story." Ahmakak-Pritchard was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and was diagnosed when she was 9 years old.

"The biggest success has been because we have such a strong, supportive family and extended church family," Pritchard said.

"The environment has got to be created for her, and they have done that."

Pritchard works at the senior center as a care coordinator, and said she has been able to give Ahmakak-Pritchard a way to focus her energy in spite of her developmental challenges.

She said her granddaughter often has problems making generalizations, so instructions given for one task often must be repeated for a similar task in a different location.

"If I showed her how to keep this glass from falling off this table, she'll understand, but you would have to show her the same thing at a different table," Pritchard said.

She described other challenges Ahmakak-Pritchard has, like comprehending the context of people's conversations, or becoming overloaded with sensory stimulus and requiring time to refocus.

But there are good sides, as well.

"She's good with time and numbers," Pritchard said of her granddaughter. "It helps me to be really structured at home because she's so conscious of schedules.

"And really considerate of how others feel. Every time she goes someplace, she's thinking of others."

Ahmakak-Pritchard's mother and father live in Barrow and Nuiqsut, respectively, but she has lived with her grandparents, Jody and Tom Pritchard, since she was 12, growing up around Fairbanks and finally moving to the Kenai Peninsula. Jody Pritchard said hands-on training helped her granddaughter to focus, and the Hutchinson Career Center in Fair-banks provided an outlet for the youngster's creativity.

"I wanted to be in their culinary arts program," Ahmakak-Pritchard said, in one of the few comments she offered during her grandmother's discussion Tuesday morning.

Now an adult, Ahmakak-Pritchard lives with the reminder of how alcohol consumption can scar a child for life.

According to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, an estimated 40,000 infants are born with alcohol-related effects every year in the United States. Cases of FAS may vary, with some displaying symptoms like Ahmakak-Pritchard's and others showing completely different signs of the disease.

Although 100 percent preventable, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the leading cause of mental retardation, birth defects and learning disabilities.

Tuesday, the FAS program at Frontier Community Services hosted its fifth annual FAS Awareness Day program to spread the message that drinking while pregnant can be harmful to the unborn child of the expecting mother.

"It's about changing environments," Pritchard said.

Tuesday morning, rain fell as a group convened at the Erik Hansen Memorial Scout Park in Kenai to recognize the awareness day. But the atmosphere changed from completely gray and overcast to a somewhat sun-dripped morning while the Heartbeat of Mother Earth Drummers pounded out a song of honor.

Then all in attendance stood silently at the ninth hour and the ninth minute of the ninth day of the ninth month as a bell rang nine times symbolizing the nine months an expecting mother should abstain from drinking alcohol.

Dr. Marguerite McIntosh, the physician coordinator for the FAS program, said the period of pregnancy is not the only time mothers should avoid consuming alcoholic beverages.

"Even drinking alcohol during breast feeding can cause learning deficiencies," she said.

McIntosh spoke to more than 50 people who attended the FAS Awareness Day breakfast at the Kenai American Legion Hall, extolling the need for prevention and explaining just what children born with the disease face.

"Alcohol is directly toxic to nerve cells," she said. "If you're a developing fetus, you don't have many brain cells to begin with. Exposure to alcohol will stunt the growth of those cells and impact the ones that grow from there."

She pointed out that one in 100 births are affected by alcohol and further explained the problems people with FAS face. There is the primary disability, which manifests itself in many ways and is directly due to the alcohol. Then there is a secondary disability that comes as a byproduct of the behavior problems, McIntosh said.

"The part of our brain that helps us understand that when you touch a hot stove and it burns, to not touch it again -- that part doesn't work for people with FAS," she said. "So they aren't able to grasp consequences."

McIntosh said this leads to children with FAS getting into trouble often or being labeled as "bad" children. Because the disease can impact one's equilibrium as well, children can appear restless or always jumpy. This can lead to further problems, like mistreatment from parents or guardians, and evolve into social behavior like crime or sexual promiscuity.

She said that because 72 percent of the children diagnosed with FAS have normal IQ scores, school systems can have a difficult time identifying the problem.

Prevention is the primary de-fense against the disease and is the responsibility of both parents, Pritchard said.

"As long as you're sexually active, there is no safe time to drink," she said. "And men who don't drink while mothers are pregnant can be a positive influence."

McIntosh said once a child is diagnosed with FAS, the help should come into play so that the child can grow into a pattern of stable and healthy maturing.

"Early intervention, stability, and good nurturing homes will significantly prevent secondary disabilities," she said.

Pritchard said that is what has worked for Ahmakak-Pritchard.

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