KPU Partners with Centre for Child Development to Research FASD

Researchers are studying children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in social settings

Michelle Hunsche, KPU graduate, hopes to spread awareness about FASD. (flickr/Kwantlen Polytechnic University)

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term that includes a variety of disabilities and disorders which occur as the result of mothers consuming alcohol during pregnancy. The disorder can cause a variety of conditions including learning and physical disabilities, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and skeletal problems. The government estimates that, every year, approximately 3,000 babies in Canada are born with FASD.

In September, Kwantlen Polytechnic University announced a partnership with the Centre for Childhood Development to study children with the disorder. The CCD, which is based in Surrey, is a non-profit organization that offers support and resources to children with disabilities. It provides families and children with access to physiotherapists, social workers, speech language pathologists, psychologists, doctors, and early childhood educators.

The partnership is being funded by a Partnership Engage Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It will study the social cognitive abilities of children with FASD in relation to children with autism as well as those with neurotypical development.

Dr. Daniel Bernstein, KPU psychology instructor and the head of the Lifespan Cognition Lab. (Braden Klassen)

Dr. Daniel Bernstein, a KPU psychology instructor and the head of the Lifespan Cognition Lab, is a part of the project. He is looking for indications of egocentrism in children with FASD similar to that in children with autism.

“Kids, when they’re very young, tend to be very egocentric—their world is the world,” he says. “Then they grow out of that and understand that that doesn’t map onto the real world so much. Just because they think something doesn’t mean that everyone else shares that thought. We’re constantly assessing our own feelings and thoughts in relation to what other people are thinking and feeling.”

Even though high-functioning adults can also fall victim to egocentrism, Bernstein says that it tends to happen more frequently with children and adults with autism.

“One of the things that you find quite often with autism is that the child does not engage very well socially, and so there has been a lot of work on that,” he says. “There’s been very little work, relatively, on kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder with respect to social cognition.”

Dr. Brian Katz is the Director of Psychology & Family Services at the CCD. He anticipates that the project will help the centre develop more beneficial resources for children with FASD, such as social skills groups.

“Through our research, we hope to learn more about the similarities and differences in how people with [ASD or FASD] behave in social situations so we can develop more effective interventions,” he wrote in an email to The Runner.

The study includes interactive hour-long tests that allow children to participate in games which measure their perspective-taking abilities, such as finding toys that have been hidden in a box by estimating what other people are thinking.

The project is being coordinated KPU psychology graduate Michelle Hunsche, who studied psychological aspects of FASD for her Honors thesis.

“It is more difficult for families with children with FASD to obtain services, and there is far less awareness of the need for services for these children,” she wrote in an email to The Runner. “Our goal (and my role as project coordinator) is to share our results with both the scientific and the general community in hopes of spreading awareness about FASD and the social challenges that these children face.”

The results of the testing and the project’s findings could be published within two or three years, after which the CCD will be able to use them to help the families that the organization serves.

Bernstein says that their preliminary tests have already begun to yield surprising results. They could suggest that the social cognitive abilities of children with FASD might not differ as much from typical children as was originally expected.

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