Secondary characteristics or secondary disabilities are not caused directly by prenatal exposure to alcohol, but they develop throughout later childhood, adolescence and during adulthood. Children, youth and adults living with FASD live in a world that often does not fit them very well. Most people around them do not recognize that their behaviour and limitations are in fact linked to primary disabilities of FASD. Over time, a state of chronic “poor fit” develops (Malbin, 2006, pp. 46-47). The result is the development of what we call secondary characteristics.
The poor fit between a person with FASD and her or his environment is not on purpose. It is the result of gaps in understanding and missing information. When a disability is not recognized, demands and expectations that cannot be met because of brain differences are placed on individuals with FASD. These individuals experience failure over and over. Repeated failure and continued high expectations in an environment that is confusing, overwhelming and frustrating contributes to secondary characteristics.
Secondary issues are interconnected. They tend to stack up over and above the struggles linked with the primary disabilities. Families and professionals see several types of secondary characteristics like the ones listed below:
- Mental health problems
- Disrupted school experience
- Trouble with the law
- Confinement for treatment or mental health
- Inappropriate sexual behaviour
- Social isolation
- Problems living independently
- Risk taking activities
- Unplanned pregnancy
- Problems with employment
Finding a Good Fit
Many families have identified that secondary characteristics are actually more troubling and confusing than primary ones. Secondary issues often take the most time and energy and carry greater risk to the child, youth, adult and family. It is very important to recognize a poor fit and be prepared to help find a good fit. Everyone requires a good fit in her or his environment. Creating a good fit takes some work but can lessen secondary disabilities and characteristics. A good fit for an individual with FASD must be based on strengths, abilities, interests but also must address struggles.
Identifying strengths is a great starting point. Knowing about struggles and disabilities is important but knowing about strengths will help create a good fit and make a positive difference. Look for chances to discover new talents as the individual ages and matures. Every person is unique and will have a particular set of gifts.
Some common strengths for people with FASD:
- Highly verbal, friendly, cheerful and affectionate
- Natural kindness with children and animals
- Fair and cooperative nature
- Caring, kind, concerned, sensitive, loyal, faithful
- Creativity, especially in art and music
- Manual and mechanical skills, good with repetitive activities such as cooking and construction
- Determined, committed, persistent and helpful
- Spontaneous, curious, and involved
- Problem solve with support