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Primary Symptoms of FASD: Difficulty with Abstract Concepts

“The bank just takes your money.” This was my teenage son’s adamant response to the suggestion he open a bank account. After graduation he began working for our family construction business earning a weekly paycheck. When I discovered he was cashing the checks and stuffing the money in his wallet, I cautioned him. “Someone could steal your money or you might lose your wallet.”

A month later my son came to me confessing he’d lost his wallet. It contained $1,200! I felt sick over his loss and regret that I hadn’t escorted him to the bank to open an account in the first place.

What’s Going on Here?

This teen’s refusal to put his money in the bank wasn’t without reason—banks do take our money. But my son didn’t understand the bank would keep his money safe and give it back to him when he needed it.

Banking and money are abstract concepts. People with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) or other neurobehavioral conditions can have difficulty understanding these concepts, They tend to be concrete thinkers.

When money is deposited in the bank it’s no longer visible or tangible. Concrete thinkers like my son have difficultly grasping the fact that they still have their money. Thankfully, most banks now have Apps so we can use our smart phones to track our money in real time—we can see it anytime we want.

Abstract Concepts

In addition to understanding how money works there are many other abstract concepts that are challenging for our kids with FASD, trauma or other brain-based conditions.

Car insurance is another abstract concept. Several years ago one of our older adopted kids got into some trouble with the motor vehicle and insurance company.

She hadn’t paid her insurance bill—for months—and her drivers license was about to be canceled.

Our daughter worked full-time and had money in her bank account. But she did not understand the concept of car insurance. Her cell phone bill, on the other hand, was paid. Cell phones are tangible. If that bill isn’t paid the phone doesn’t work—she could understand that.

It’s About Time

Understanding and managing time is another abstract concept our kids can have difficulty with. Unfortunately, trouble with time can appear as disobedience or defiance.

My younger teenage son will insist he spent an hour doing yard work after being outside only fifteen minutes. Or even after being reminded to make it quick, he will run the hot water for a thirty minute shower.

This son isn’t being disobedient or defiant in the above examples. To him, fifteen minutes seems like an hour and thirty minutes can seem like five. Due to prenatal alcohol exposure, his brain has difficulty understanding and managing time.

So What Do We Do?

Parents and caregivers of kids who’s brains work differently must think differently. We need to understand that our kids require supports and accommodations to keep them safe and help them be successful.

When it comes to money, our boys both have bank accounts with my name on them. They are able to track their money from their phones and so am I. This allows me to watch over their funds, advise them about spending if necessary, and make sure no one is taking advantage of them.

My son who lost his wallet wasn’t thrilled with mom being on his bank account at first. He insisted I might steal his money. To assure him that I did not want or need his cash, I allowed him to shred the debit card which had my name on it.

For time management, my husband and I teach our boys to set reminders on their devices and we set timers and provide reminders as needed also. Our family uses a big white board in our main hallway for scheduling. And, if they have a project with deadlines or important appointments, we guide them as needed.

Keep it Concrete

As I have grown in my knowledge of FASD and its primary symptoms, my expectations have changed. Now that I understand my boys have difficulty with abstract concepts, I keep an eye out for them and provide support as necessary. With this in mind, I try to keep things as concrete as possible.

Ways to Support Your Concrete Thinker:

  • Make time tangible with timers, reminders, lists, and planners

  • Utilize banking apps

  • Avoid metaphors and analogies

  • Explain abstract concepts

  • Be aware they may misunderstand jokes and sarcasm

  • Remember they take things literally

  • Keep it concrete

Overall, parents and caregivers must utilize a brain-based approach to parenting. If our child’s brain has difficulty with abstract concepts, we need to provide accommodations

and support.

If you would like to listen to my Adoption & Foster Care Journey Podcast episode about the Primary Symptoms of FASD: Difficultly with Abstract Concepts you can find it HERE.

For FASD resources such as my online and in-person workshops, parent coaching, the Hope for the FASD Journey Online Support Community and my podcast visit

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