Executive and Social Functioning Across Development in Children and Adolescents With Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2021 Feb;45(2):457-469. doi: 10.1111/acer.14538. Epub 2021 Jan 22.


Background: Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) is linked to a variety of neurodevelopmental challenges, including social functioning (SF) and executive functioning (EF) deficits. These deficits present differently across developmental stages from preschool age to adolescence.

Methods: The post hoc analyses described here were conducted on data from 83 preschool-age children with PAE (early childhood group; ages 2.5 to 5.0) and 95 adolescents (49 with PAE, 46 controls; ages 8 to 16). Each child completed EF tasks as part of several prior studies. Parents completed social and communication inventories about their child's abilities. Thirty-three participants from the early childhood group returned for a 4-year follow-up and completed both SF and EF measures.

Results: Both the early childhood and adolescent groups with PAE showed deficits in SF and EF. There was a relationship between SF and EF within the adolescent PAE group that was not present in the adolescent control group or the early childhood PAE group. However, at the 4-year follow-up (Mage = 8.45), participants originally in the early childhood PAE group also demonstrated this relationship.

Conclusions: These findings support previous research on EF/SF deficits in adolescents with PAE while also addressing a gap in the literature concerning early childhood research on this topic. Additionally, these findings suggest that the relationship between EF and SF deficits may strengthen throughout development. This line of research highlights potential sensitive periods for SF and EF training in children with PAE and suggests that fetal alcohol spectrum disorders programs consider targeting EF training as a component of social skill interventions.

Keywords: Development; Executive Function; Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder; Social Behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural