March 10, 2017

Prenatal alcohol exposure affects more children annually than spina bifida, Down syndrome, childhood cancer and childhood diabetes combined — 2 to 5 percent of all children. Yet, despite it being the leading cause of intellectual disabilities, it remains an issue often misunderstood by the public.

To reduce developmental disabilities, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, the Health and Human Services' Office for Prevention of Developmental Disabilities educates and empowers Texans to promote children's health through training, research, statewide planning and action.

"Some misconceptions about disabilities related to prenatal alcohol exposure are that they are extremely rare, only occur with a great deal of alcohol exposure and only affect certain populations," said Janet Sharkis, executive director of TOPDD. "Training is vital because FASD is preventable, and for people who have it, intervention is vital."

More than 1,000 professionals each year are trained through the office. The training uses the office's latest research to teach people how to identify and help children with FASD and to reduce the incidence of prenatal alcohol exposure. Open to anyone who is interested, it includes judges, child welfare workers, social workers, medical professionals, family members and educators.

Planning is also key to raising awareness. The office brings together about 2,100 volunteers every year to improve systems and services, as well as to reduce the incidence and effects of FASD.

"People are surprised to learn how significantly FASD can change a person's life, including its effect on mental health, intellectual abilities, social skills and overall functioning," said Leah Davis, TOPDD associate director. "Once our trainees better understand the dynamics around FASD, it changes their perspective. It helps them catch children before they fall through the cracks."

The office, through its FASD Collaborative, works with researchers across the country as well as consumers, subject matter experts, community leaders, volunteers and policy makers to determine how to best help Texas children.

Conducting research in collaboration with universities to gather Texas-based data, the office recently completed a statewide study, the first of its kind, on the prevalence of prenatal alcohol exposure with results being released later this month. A study on FASD with a focus on children in the state welfare system was also conducted.

"Anyone who wants to learn more or do more about FASD can come to us," said Davis.

For more information about FASD, to receive training or learn about volunteer opportunities, visit the Texas Office for Prevention of Developmental Disabilities website.