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March 01, 2003  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Fetal alcohol syndrome: Norman's struggle

Fetal alcohol syndrome: Norman's struggle

by Cal Bellerive


Standing alone, his back pressed against the school wall, Norman hides in the protection of his high-collared coat. His gaze is fixed on infinity. As the bus door opens, a torrent of children streams up the steps, and Norman enters the flow. Seeking a direct route to his regular seat across and one back from the driver, he shoulders his way through the crowd.

Norman sits quietly as children fill the bus. He fishes a half-eaten apple from his pocket, smells it and takes a bite. He returns it to his pocket. Turning, he kneels on the seat to watch two boys vying for the right to sit with a redheaded girl. Hearing his name drift through the haze, Norman turns slowly and searches for the source of this familiar sound. Motioning with his arm, the bus driver directs, “Norman, sit down.” Norman hesitates and then drops to his seat.

As the bus leaves the school, the scenery running past the window draws Norman’s face to the glass until his nose and lips are pressed flat against the surface. The glowing sun warms his cheeks as his tongue slides out and licks the glass. Springing to his feet, Norman opens the window and laughs at the rush of fresh air on his face. His face breaks the plane of the window — and another rule. “Norman, sit down,” says the driver. Norman sits still and stiff. He knows he has the meanest bus driver in the whole world. At the first bus stop, the red-headed girl says goodbye to Norman. He does not hear her; he is still thinking that his bus driver is the meanest in the whole world.

Swaying with the rhythm of a winding road, Norman turns and faces the other children. Looking back through the seats, he is seized by the bright colors of a clown painting. A blonde-haired boy, holding the painting for others to see, doesn’t hear Norman advancing. Intrigued by the smell of drying paint and the shiny colors, Norman steps in close and strokes the clown. The blonde-haired boy shouts in protest, and Norman jumps, pulling his fingers clear of danger.

“Norman, sit down,” says the driver. Norman turns and marches toward his seat, slamming each foot down as he goes. He sits, fumes and licks his fingers. “Norman. Norman,” he hears. Norman looks up, and his eyes follow the bus driver’s extended arm, down toward the hand, past the pointing finger and out through the open door. Recognizing the familiar shapes and shades of his mother, Norman leaps up and knocks the blonde-haired boy into the empty seat across the aisle. He scurries down the steps and buries himself in the welcoming embrace of his mother’s arms.

The bus driver closes the door and reassures himself that he is not the meanest bus driver in the whole world. He is only trying to help Norman through the struggle of living with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

How to deal with FAS students
FAS is brain damage. It is an invisible, non-curable disability. This brain damage can put FAS students into constant conflict with their peers, authority figures and the everyday flow of life. They struggle to fit in, and they are resistant to change. To care for an FAS student, you must be the one to change. Change your approach, change your expectations and change your level of supervision.

Recognizing an FAS student is not always easy. Some students will display many characteristic features and traits, while others will show very few. Here are some signs to look for in children with FAS:

Physical features:

  • small size for their age
  • flat midface (from the middle of the nose to the hair line)
  • upturned nose
  • short eye slits
  • thin upper lip
  • cleft palate

    Neurological traits (learning disabilities):

  • difficulty with concepts such as time
  • cannot connect actions with consequences
  • quickly forget new information
  • cannot transfer learning from one situation to another
  • become confused under pressure

    Behavior problems:

  • hyperactive and restless
  • immature social skills
  • overreact to stimulation
  • impulsive with poor judgment
  • moody and stubborn
  • overly affectionate
  • tactile (like to feel and touch)

    How do you help FAS students? With patience; it takes a large effort to get a small success. With understanding; they are not bad, they are disabled. With repetition; remember, they forget. Here are some suggestions for supervision.


  • use simple verbal instructions and signals
  • use positive reminders (tell them what you want, not what you don’t want)
  • allow students time to process information and react
  • maintain close supervision
  • use repetition (the same routine and the same words each day)
  • ask them to repeat instructions in their own words to gauge their level of understanding
  • repeat, reteach and remind, each and every day


  • use negative commands (“Don’t sit on the floor.”)
  • use concepts (“Behave yourself.”)
  • expect immediate compliance
  • overload them with information
  • change their routine
  • pressure them
  • keep using methods that aren’t working

    As long as an FAS student is in your care, you will have to use strategies. Do not expect them to “get the idea” or remember what you told them yesterday. Take the time and make the effort to share your undamaged brain with an FAS student just as you would share your undamaged eyes with a blind student. It will save both of you a lot of stress.

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