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Primary Characteristics of FASD—Memory Problems

Does this happen to you: Your family is about to leave for an appointment, school, church, (you fill in the blank) and your kiddo can’t find his shoes? To be fair, maybe one shoe is located but the other—nope.

The first summer after our youngest came home, I was so weary of never having his shoes when it was time to leave the house—I purchased six pairs of flip flops for him. It was a brilliant idea except for the part where I’d picked different colors.


Even though we kept his shoes by the front door, as the dog days of summer wore on, his dogs were usually adorned in mismatched flip flops because we could never find two of the same color. Sometimes he wore two right or two left flip flops because the mate was no where to be found.

Lost shoes, jackets, backpacks, and other items are a common occurrence with children—especially children with trauma histories and prenatal exposure to alcohol.


Short-term Memory Problems

Memory problems are a primary symptom of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Short-term auditory memory challenges such as not remembering verbal instructions, misplacing items, forgetting rules or other information just taught, frustrate both parent and child.


Memory challenges can appear like disobedience or defiance. When a parent or teacher spouts off a list of instructions such as: hang up your coat, bring your backpack to the table, I’ll get you a snack, then after you do your homework you can go play. When we return with the snack what is the child doing? Playing. Why are they playing? Because it was the last thing we told them to do—and the only step they remembered.


This is the kiddo who will get yelled at, corrected, or disciplined for not listening or following the rules. But what if their brain cannot remember all that information? Or what if they struggle with a slow processing pace—another primary symptom of FASD?

While it seems like they can remember some things, especially from long ago, they do have short-term memory challenges. One former foster youth I interviewed recently said, “I can remember what happened five years ago, but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.


Memory Challenges Effect Learning


Memory challenges make learning difficult. For example, my son can successfully read a new word several times on a page, but when we turn the page and he encounters that same word again, he doesn’t recognize it. It’s like his brain is a file cabinet—the information goes in, some days he can retrieve it, but other times it can’t be found.



Sound Familiar?

If your child struggles with memory problems, it could be a symptom of a neurobehavioral condition such as FASD. Children prenatally exposed to alcohol are highly overrepresented in the child welfare system. If you are an adoptive parent, foster parent, or kinship caregiver—you could be caring for a child with an FASD. We must understand that trauma and prenatal exposure to alcohol impact the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory.


What’s the Solution?

The solution is to accommodate for success. When it comes to our child’s memory, we have got to change our thinking. Our kids will not outgrow this neurobehavioral condition, however, good accommodations can help them with daily living skills.



My lost shoe kid also used to lose his glasses. He’d take them off and not remember where he placed them, most likely because his brain was more focused on the task he took them off for—like jumping on the trampoline.

The accommodation we made was to take his glasses off when he came home from school and place them on his dresser. Always putting them in the same place helps ensure he will be able to find them when needed. For a long time, I supervised this step as part of his after-school routine. Now, at seventeen, he can usually find his glasses—usually.




Remember it’s a Spectrum

FASD is a spectrum of brain-based conditions caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Not every person with an FASD is going to present all the symptoms nor will the symptoms present the same way in each individual.


One of my sons is more impacted than the other. He needs one-on-one support for most tasks. When it comes to remembering, I expect him to not remember and I plan for it. For example, when getting dressed he almost always forgets to apply deodorant. Did I mention he’s a teenager? Deodorant is not a step we want to skip!

This kid prefers help picking out his clothes for the day—too many decisions overwhelm him. I want him to practice decision-making, so I hold up a couple of shirts for him to choose from. I set the selected shirt on his bed and placed the deodorant on top of the shirt. The visual reminder helps my son remember to put the deodorant on—usually.



Visual & Auditory Aids

If your child is a visual learner, visual aids can be helpful. Provide a checklist on a whiteboard or poster so your kiddo can follow the steps. Use pictures for children who struggle with reading. Older kids can utilize the tech on their phones by making lists and keeping track of chores, activities, and appointments.

My son is an auditory learner. He seems to not even see the posted reminders I have in the bathroom and his bedroom. Verbal cues help him best as do alarms and reminders set on his very dumbed-down smartphone.

Your child’s forgetfulness at home (with chores, homework, or other tasks) and memory problems at school (trouble with memorizing spelling words or math facts) are not because they are being difficult, oppositional, or lazy. It’s not that they won’t remember—they can’t.

They may have a brain-based condition caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol or other neurobehavioral disorders.

My Advice:

  • Get educated about FASD

  • Think “Could my child’s brain have something to do with this?”

  • Adjust your expectations

  • Accommodate for success

  • Extend your child & yourself grace

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To learn more about the primary characteristics of FASD—including memory problems, check out my Adoption & Foster Care Journey podcast HERE.

For free resources and my available online FASD workshops visit justicefororphansny.org

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