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Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Can’t Understand Emotions of Others

posted 01:36 PM EST, Sat July 18, 2009
Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Can’t Understand Emotions of Others © Photo Credit: Nyki M

Researchers in Toronto say that a lot of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders receive an initial wrong-diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but that although the negative behaviors exhibited by children with both conditions are similar, the cognitive processes causing these behaviors differ greatly.

Researchers at the Surrey Place Centre in Toronto Canada decided to investigate the cognitive and social processes that manifest in both ADHD and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), to gain a better understanding of what causes the behavioral problems exhibited by those with FASD.

Knowing that kids with FASD are often misdiagnosed initially as having ADHD, the researchers compared 3 groups of 8 and 9 year old children (33 that had FASD, 30 that had ADHD and 34 control kids, with neither condition) to examine emotional processing and social cognition skills.

Kids with FASD Can’t Understand Emotional Responses of Others

The researchers found that children with FASD performed significantly worse on emotional processing and social cognition than did kids with ADHD. These 2 skill sets are used to recognize and evaluate the emotional and mental states of people around us.

The researchers explain the significance by saying that although someone with ADHD may know that a certain action will cause another person distress, they may do it anyway; not being able to control their actions effectively. Someone with FASD, that has poor emotional processing and social cognition skills, may not even be able to realize how their behaviors affect the feelings of another person. 

A child with ADHD may know that a certain action is wrong, and do it anyway – someone with FASD may not even realize that they are doing anything wrong at all!

Children with FASD, are not, for example, very able to identify the emotions displayed in the facial expressions of others, a skill that most people take for granted.

Neuroscientist and study leader, University of Toronto professor Joanne Rovet, explained the findings, saying, “The core deficit in FASD appears to be in understanding and interpreting another's mental states and emotions,” and that these deficits, "may underlie the severe conduct problems seen in children with FASD, including behaviors such as lying, cheating and stealing.”

Professor Rovet suggests that children diagnosed with FASD need targeted interventions in areas of social and emotional processing.

The full study data can be found online at: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

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