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Primary Characteristics of FASD: Impulsivity

“What were you thinking!” Have you ever thrown your arms up and spewed

those words at your kiddo? I have. My child’s constant impulsive behavior

left me exasperated. I needed to be ten steps ahead of him at all times to

keep him safe and the house in one piece.


Impulsivity is probably one “behavior” most parents constantly find

themselves disciplining for and trying to correct. But it might not be

intentional disobedience or defiance. Impulsivity is another primary

characteristic of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol have difficulty anticipating or

considering the effect of their actions. They often say or do the first thing

that pops into their mind. It appears the child just won’t stop and think

before they act—but actually, their brain doesn’t work that way.

It’s a Brain Thing

Alcohol exposure in the womb changes the structure and function of the brain. The cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and corpus callosum are adversely impacted which causes the following:

  • attention deficits

  • impaired executive function

  • information processing difficulties

  • memory deficits

  • poor personal boundaries

  • poor self-regulation

All of the above lead to poor impulse control.

Last summer my seventeen year old son, who has an FASD diagnosis, decided to go for a bike ride while I was on a Zoom call. We live on a rural dead end road and he had his bike helmet on, so I gave him a thumbs up. An hour later he came into the house and proudly announced, “I rode my bike to the library!”

The blood drained from my face. He had ridden his electric bike four miles one way through a five red-light intersection crossing a state highway. We’d never practiced for this. He had no ID or cell phone. I had no idea where he’d gone. And dysmaturity put him at about eight years old developmentally.

After regaining my composure, I asked what he did at the library. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine the kid would go there—he hates reading. My son explained he’d asked the library lady where to put his bike. She told him it needed to be locked up in the bike rack. So, he rode home. Smiling, he asked, “Can we go on Amazon and order a bike lock?”

This kid had no clue how dangerous his actions were. What about traffic? What if

he’d been hit by a car? What about strangers?

What was he thinking?

Earlier that morning we’d read a story about some adventurous kids—who rode their bikes to a library. That’s all it took. Once the thought popped into my son’s head, he hopped on his bike and peddled to town. He didn’t stop to think about the dangers or even what he would do when he got there—that’s impulsivity.

Prenatal alcohol exposure impacts the brain’s ability to plan, reason, and consider cause and effect. These executive function tasks are impaired and impulsive behavior occurs. And the older our kids get, the more dangerous impulsivity can be.

So what do we do?

I believe, in order to keep our impulsive kiddos safe, we must focus on prevention and preparation.

Prevention is an important accommodation.

We must anticipate trouble and try to prevent it. I used to leave my car keys in my car. We live in a rural area with a long driveway, so I was never worried about theft. After my son’s impulsive bike ride to town, something I never expected him to do, I now keep my keys in my purse which I stow away in my bedroom.

Some of my fellow FASD moms keep medication and money locked up. Others use security cameras to protect younger children. Passwords on all electronic devices, including smart tv’s, also help keep kids safe online.

While it’s impossible to prevent every problem impulsivity could cause, prevention can help avoid some situations. Parents and caregivers must do their best to anticipate possible trouble and put a preventive plan in place.

Preparing for potential problems is another accommodation.

Like prevention, preparation can help avoid adverse outcomes. Our family flew from New York to Colorado recently. My seventeen year old son with an FASD wore a sunflower lanyard with his ID attached. The sunflower is the international symbol for hidden disabilities and most major public transportation hubs recognize it. Sunflower lanyards are available

online or at most airports.

In preparation for our trip, I purchased a lanyard for my son. He has difficulty waiting in line and anxiety if he thinks we’re late or lost. Security officers and flight attendants recognized the sunflower symbol and understood my son had a hidden disability. As a result, he had very positive interactions in the security line and on the plane.

Another family with a young adult son with an FASD prepared for potential problems by informing the local police department about their son’s invisible disability. We can create a safety net by providing parent contact information, a picture of our kiddo, and a list of their diagnosis and symptoms in the event impulsivity gets them into trouble.

Preparation and prevention are two accommodations we can implement to help keep our impulsive kids safe.

You can listen to my Adoption & Foster Care Journey Podcast episode on impulsivity HERE.

For more FASD resources visit

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