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Identifying the behavioural phenotype in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: sensitivity, specificity and screening potential


Background: In most cases of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the pathognomonic facial features are absent making diagnosis challenging, if not impossible, particularly when no history of maternal drinking is available. Also because FASD is often comorbid with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), children with FASD are frequently improperly diagnosed and receive the wrong treatment. Since access to psychological testing is typically limited or non-existent in remote areas, other diagnostic methods are needed to provide necessary interventions.

Objectives: To determine if a characteristic behavioural phenotype distinguishes children with FASD from typically developing children and children with ADHD and use this information to create a screening tool for FASD diagnosis.

Methods: Parents and caregivers completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), a well-established standardized tool for evaluating children’s behavioural problems. Results from 30 children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disability, 30 children with ADHD, and 30 typically developing healthy children matched for age and socioeconomic status with FASD were analyzed. Based on our previous work, 12 CBCL items that significantly differentiated FASD and control groups were selected for further analyses. Stepwise discriminant function analysis identified behavioural characteristics most strongly differentiating groups and Receiver Operating Characteristics (ROC) curve analyses determined sensitivity and specificity of different item combinations.

Results: Seven items reflecting hyperactivity, inattention, lying and cheating, lack of guilt, and disobedience significantly differentiated children with FASD from controls. ROC analyses showed scores of 6 or higher on these items differentiated groups with a sensitivity of 86%, specificity of 82%. For FASD and ADHD, two combinations of items significantly differentiated groups with high sensitivity and specificity (i) no guilt, cruelty, and acts young (sensitivity = 70%; specificity = 80% (ii) acts young, cruelty, no guilt, lying or cheating, steals from home, and steals outside (sensitivity = 81%; specificity = 72%). These items were used to construct a potential FASD screening tool.

Conclusions: Our findings identifying the behavioural characteristics differentiating children with FASD from typically developing children or children with ADHD have the potential for development of an empirically derived tool for FASD tool to be used in remote areas where psychological services are not readily available. This technique may speed up diagnosis and intervention for children without ready access to formal assessments.

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Nash, K., Rovet, J., Greenbaum, R. et al. Identifying the behavioural phenotype in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: sensitivity, specificity and screening potential. Arch Womens Ment Health 9, 181–186 (2006).

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  • Keywords: FASD; ADHD; screening; child behavior checklist; alcohal; ethanol; pregnancy.