Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Assistive Technological Devices for FAS Students

By Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch

Students with fetal alcohol syndrome can have different issues that arise from in utero exposure to alcohol. For example, students may have trouble with sustained attention or working memory. Assistive technology in the classroom and at home can benefit students with fetal alcohol syndrome.

The Effects of Drinking While Pregnant

Alcohol can cause health problems, especially when consumed during a pregnancy. When a fetus is exposed to alcohol, it can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome FAS serious damage to her brain. Disorders that can result from drinking while pregnant are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, with fetal alcohol syndrome being the most severe type. Children diagnosed with this syndrome may have problems with behavior, cognition and language. For example, a child may have poor memory, delays in language, hyperactive behavior and trouble maintaining attention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that a child with fetal alcohol syndrome may have a learning disability or an intellectual disability. Children with this disease may qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and may benefit from assistive technology.

Assistive Technology in the Special Education Classroom

The National AT Advocacy Project notes that assistive technology is defined as “any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." In 1990, the definition of both assistive technology devices and services were added to IDEA. When the educational team is creating a child’s individualized education program (IEP), they can include assistive technology that would help the student. The National AT Advocacy Project adds that in the 1999 comments to the 1999 regulations, it stated that students should have access to personal assistive technology, as well as assistive technology devices used by all of the students in the class.

Options for Students With FAS

There are several available optional assistive technological devices to help students in elementary and high school cope with fetal alcohol syndrome. With elementary school students, the assistive technology options may be simpler than ones given to high school students.

For example, to help with organization and helping students remember an appointment, the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Institute suggests an electronic alarm clock for elementary students, a desktop computer with a calendar program for middle school students, and a personal digital assistant for high school students. Besides helping students remember when an assignment is due, a personal digital assistant can also store instructions for an assignment.

Computers can be helpful when teaching students with fetal alcohol syndrome—programs can help with sustaining attention and make learning fun for the students. British Columbia’s Ministry of Education notes that computers can help when teaching science, such as programs that allow students to have scientific practice and record their results. Students who have fine motor difficulties who would have trouble with a microscope or other scientific equipment may benefit from this computerized version.

Another option the Ministry of Education suggests when teaching science is a specialized adapted laboratory with microscopes adapted for students with fine motor difficulties and lower lab tables.

Students with fetal alcohol syndrome benefit from multimodality teaching, such as using visual cues. Visual adaptations can also help students who have difficulty with memory and attention. For example, in addition to providing instructions orally, teachers can also project the directions on a PowerPoint slide for the whole class.

Overhead projectors are another option. In addition, teachers may choose to record the directions, and then give the student the tape recorder to listen to. If the student is having trouble remembering all of the information from a presentation, try recording it. The Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Institute suggests tape recording the presentation, then allowing the student to listen to it either in the classroom or at home, letting her have more time to gather the information. Videotaping is another option for recording presentations.

Timers and stopwatches can be beneficial assistive technological devices for fetal alcohol syndrome, especially if sustained attention is a difficulty for the student. When the student is working on an assignment, the teacher can set the timer, letting the student know how long she has; if the student needs to take a break while working, she can stop the timer for the length of the break. To help increase a student’s sustained attention, the teacher can use a stopwatch. The Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Institute explains that the teacher uses a stopwatch to time the student while she does a task, stopping the time when the student loses her attention. The teacher and student create a goal for the student to focus longer than she did before, such as 15 seconds longer. If she is able to do it, she receives a reward of her choosing. This process is continued until the student can sustain her attention on the task for five minutes.

There are a few types of assistive technology that can help students with fetal alcohol syndrome strengthen their writing and math skills as well. For example, students with writing trouble may benefit from electronic spellcheckers and word processors, while calculators may help students who have trouble in math. Some of these devices are low-tech, such as graph paper for students who have difficulties with spatial organization. Students can use highlighters to indicate what information to remember, as well as mark where they should start and stop.

While using the technology tools above, teachers can take note of what adaptations help their students with FAS and which do not.