Distinguishing between attention-deficit hyperactivity and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in children: clinical guidelines

Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2010 Sep 7:6:509-15. doi: 10.2147/ndt.s7256.


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are the physical and neurodevelopmental outcomes of fetal alcohol exposure. The behavioral phenotype of children with FASD includes difficulties with executive function, memory, planning, processing speed, and attention. Although attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is diagnosed in up to 94% of individuals with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure, the exact relationship between FASD and ADHD is unclear. There is some evidence that ADHD in FASD may be a specific clinical subtype and thus may require a different treatment approach. Although traditional behavioral observation scales may not distinguish between the two groups, there is evidence that children with FASD have a different profile on the four-factor model of attention than children with ADHD who do not have FASD. There is a paucity of good scientific evidence on effective interventions for individuals with ADHD and FASD. There is weak evidence that children with FASD and ADHD may have a better response to dexamphetamine than methylphenidate. There is a strong need for larger, high quality studies to examine the relationship between ADHD and FASD and identify effective treatments because management of inattention and hyperactivity may improve learning and ameliorate the common secondary disabilities associated with FASD.

Keywords: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.