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Primary Symptoms of FASD: Difficulty Generalizing

My family loves to play board games. Yahtzee is one of our favorites. Slava, my teenage son is a champ. We’ve bonded over countless rolls of the dice. The only thing is, he will only play Yahtzee with me. Slava flat out refuses to play the game with his dad.

Slava’s resistance to playing the game with anyone but mom may appear disrespectful, but there’s something more going on. My son, diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome has difficulty generalizing.


What is Generalization?

Generalization, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “the process of deriving a concept, judgment, or theory from a limited number of specific cases and applying it more widely, often to an entire class of objects, events, or people.” Basically, it’s the tendency to respond in the same way to different but similar stimuli.


The hippocampus, part of the brain’s limbic system, is responsible for memory, learning and emotions. It also supports generalization by integrating memories. Generalization requires both the ability to remember details of experiences and the ability to apply the information across experiences. National Library of Medicine


Generalization and Foster and Adopted Children

Prenatal exposure to alcohol effects the structure and function of the developing brain—including the hippocampus. Childhood trauma can also alter the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for generalization.


Understanding and applying a concept in one setting but not in another may indicate difficulty with generalization. For example, my sweet boy has been learning job skills in high school. He also volunteers with me at a local thrift store. When I suggested he vacuum, pointing out vacuuming is a job skill, he matter-of-factly stated, “Nope, I only do that at school.”


While my son’s refusal to vacuum could be viewed as laziness, opposition or disobedience, it actually has more to do with how his brain works. Learning tasks in one setting like school and applying them in a different setting such as home or elsewhere requires the brain’s ability to generalize.


Most children in foster and adoptive placements are highly impacted by trauma, and many have been exposed to alcohol and/or other substances in the womb. The challenging behaviors parents and caregivers face daily may actually be symptoms of trauma and even a brain-based condition like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)*. *Proof Alliance

Difficulty Generalizing

A mom shared with me about teaching her elementary age foster son how to cross the street. Each morning as they walked to school she would remind him about stopping, looking both ways, and crossing safely in the crosswalk.


One day, they had to alter their route due to construction. Mom was shocked when her son almost stepped in front of a truck! Grabbing his arm she scolded, “You know you’re supposed to look both ways before crossing the street!” Her son’s response? “You never told me to look both ways for this street.”


While mom had taught her son to look both ways when crossing First St., she assumed he would know that meant looking both ways when crossing every street. However, her son’s brain could not make that generalization.


Last year I spent a lot of time discussing appropriate words and boundaries with my teenage son. We review “good words, good boundaries” frequently. A couple months ago, he was headed to school on an unusually warm April morning. When he shoved his feet into winter boots I suggested he wear sneakers. He opted for the boots. I insisted on sneakers. After some back and forth I declared the winter boots inappropriate. He yelled, “But I didn’t say anything bad!”


My son learned the meaning of appropriate/inappropriate in the context of spoken words and physical boundaries. His brain did not make the leap that it could be applied to footwear or clothing.


What Can We Do?

Children from hard places, especially those prenatally exposed to alcohol, can have difficulty with generalization. Learning something in one setting but not applying it in another isn’t because the child is “not thinking”—it’s most likely a symptom of a brain-based condition such as FASD*.


Parents and caregivers should be observant and always ask, could my child’s brain have something to do with this behavior? Then consider the following:


•   Don’t assume your child knows to apply concepts across environments

•   Teach, practice, reteach, practice, repeat

•   Give frequent reminders

•   Remember, it’s a brain thing


To listen to my podcast series on The Primary Characteristics of FASD and difficulty with generalizing, check out episode 367 of The Adoption & Foster Care Journey. 

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