As children, many of us spent countless days dreaming about what we wanted to be when we ‘grew up’. Some of us imagined becoming ballerinas, doctors and astronauts. But – what if the elastics on our socks consumed our thoughts and kept us from dreaming?
It might sound silly, but for children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), hypersensitivity and sensory integration issues may be among the many potential symptoms, misdirecting thoughts to trivial things and away from the joys of youth.
FASD is a term used to describe a range of disabilities that occur as a result of a woman drinking alcohol during her pregnancy. While the effects of fetal exposure to alcohol widely vary, FASD often causes structural, physiological, learning and behaviour disabilities in those affected.
Many people are unaware of the effects of FASD and most individuals with the disorder appear to be very well physically. For that reason, FASD often goes unnoticed by the general public.
The truth is that approximately nine in every 1,000 children born in Canada suffers from FASD. That’s almost 45,600 individuals in Newfoundland and Labrador alone. And, until 2010, the families of those 45,600 children had nowhere to turn.
That’s where Paula Delahunty, Addictions Coordinator with Eastern Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Program and the Regional FASD Committee comes in.
While Paula’s childhood dreams didn’t include starting the province’s first FASD Family Support Program, she always had a passion for helping others.
As an addictions coordinator, Paula often received phone calls from individuals looking for direction in supporting family members with FASD. With nowhere to direct these families and a yearning to help others, Paula decided that she and the FASD committee would create their own solution.
“FASD is not a one size fits all disorder and that’s why there was no program or community support available,” said Paula. “That’s when I realized that we needed to do something about it.”
In 2010, Paula applied for an Eastern Health Lighthouse Grant for Innovation.
Lighthouse Grants for Innovations were introduced as a way for Eastern Health to support innovation and new approaches to the work within the organization’s departments, programs, divisions, professional groups or teams.
With limited provincial supports available for FASD, Paula’s idea of a family support program was most definitely innovative and as a result she was awarded $10,000.
Joining forces with David Martin, Provincial Education Coordinator with Key Assets, a non-profit organization, the pair began the province’s first FASD Family Support Program.
“We both had a passion for helping families affected by FASD and because of that we took initiative,” said Paula. “We wanted to create an environment for people who were struggling, to reduce stress and improve outcomes for individuals and families and that’s exactly what we’ve been able to do thanks to the Lighthouse Grant.”
Now well established, the FASD Family Support Program offers a wide range of supports for families affected by FASD.
“We have partnered with the Day Break Parent Child Centre, who offer their space for free and we host bi-weekly sessions,” said Paula.
With approximately 12-15 regularly attending families, the program is having the exact effect that Paula and David hoped it would.
“Our sessions are very informal. We meet every second Wednesday night at the Day Break Parent Child Centre where we eat a sit down meal with the families. The children sit with the adults during the meal and afterwards are excused to go play.”
While the children play, the adults discuss challenges that they are facing and the group comes up with helpful solutions.
“The adults come together to support each other and the children do the same. It’s so great – everyone looks forward to coming and everyone feels connected,” said Paula.
“When you take into account the fact that approximately 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned and then consider the number of women who are of child bearing age and are social drinkers, you realize just how important it is that we educate people about FASD,” said Paula. “In our case, we can’t undo what has been done, but there are so many things that we can do to help these individuals live a better, quality life.”
And sometimes it’s as easy as taking off your socks.