Program helps children with FASD learn social skills

A local research project is developing a socials skills program for children suspected to have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder as they face year-long waits for diagnosis.

Now in its third and final year, the University of Northern B.C. pilot project, funded by Northern Health, pulls children from Northern Health Assessment Network's wait list to take part in a program called Learning Together.

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The weekly sessions last eight weeks, where experimental psychology master's student Rebecca Collins meets with a group of about eight children to teach basic social skills.

At the same time, her academic supervisor, Dr. Cindy Hardy, meets with parents to teach them methods to develop those same skills at home.

"We really noticed differences in the children from the beginning to the end," said Collins, adding children with FASD often have difficulty picking up on social cues or social skills.

"Children blossomed, they began to make friends with other children in the group, we started to see their personalities more, you really saw the children change which was really nice to see," said Collins on Wednesday, which was Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Day.

The project targets kids aged five to nine and accessing developmentally-delayed children at a young age is "a critical time in development."

"It's very important to develop social skills at a young age because if there's a lack of social skills, social isolation often occurs meaning the child does not know how to interact with other children and they become rejected among their peers."

Collins didn't know the number of children on that list, but said the wait ranged from 12 to 18 months.

"Our group provides an out for parents, so a way for them to feel slightly relieved while awaiting a diagnosis," said Collins, which is needed in order for parents to get any funding for support for children with FASD.

Collins hopes to pool the research and produce a model so that children in other communities suspected to have FASD can take part in similar programs.

Unlike other social skills program, this one has simple exercises that don't require trained clinicians to lead.

For example, "feeling charades" challenges children to guess different expressions that appear on cut-out faces.

"A lot of children with FASD lack the ability to understand what others may be feeling based on their facial expressions," she said.

They also check in with the group, asking each child to scale how they're feeling that day.

"A lot of kids gain self-reflection too."

The project has met with four groups and has plans for two more sessions of about eight children for a formative evaluation so that Collins can measure the program's success.

"We've seen a lot of improvement in the family dynamic, so we see reduced stress among the parents, more positive interactions between the parents and the children," she said, but also a way for parents to connect and vent with each other about similar experiences.

"It's acted as a support group also for the parents."

Collins also highlighted the stigma that parents, particularly mothers, face for having children with FASD.

"It's almost like a blaming that happens, but really it's a lot of different things that affect mothers during pregnancy who are drinking - environment, genetics - a lot of thing play a role on the effects of alcohol on the fetus," said Collins. "FASD can affect anyone, it can affect any socio economic status, it can affect any culture."

Other misconceptions include the mistaken belief that small amounts of alcohol are okay during pregnancy.

Still, she stressed there is no way to measure what constitutes a safe - or unsafe - amount of alcohol during pregnancy.

"When really research has shown we have no way of gauging this so we need to just say there is no safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy."

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