Attention Problems

Developmental Considerations

Children with FASD often show difficulty focusing, maintaining, organizing, and shifting their attention. Some researchers have shown that auditory attention is slightly better on average than visual attention, but there is still much to be learned in this area. Children who are too young to realize that they are becoming overwhelmed or overstimulated by their surroundings will need support and positive redirection to calm down. Caregivers find that minimizing stimulus will help regulate outbursts of energy.

Researchers working with adolescents and adults with FASD have also identified attention problems as a common challenge for this group. As with other areas of functioning attention problems and hyperactivity experienced by adolescents and adults may impact their ability to function effectively in light of demands for increasing autonomy and independence. As such seeking ways to continue to ensure supports that help with organization, attention span, and managing restlessness, or meeting other related behavioural needs, will help these individuals best access their strengths.

ADHD can co-occur with an FASD diagnosis or symptoms of FASD can mimic those of ADHD but stem from prenatal exposure to alcohol. Misdiagnosis of ADHD in children with FASD can occur due to misinterpretations of a child’s behaviour and developmental expectations.

Children prenatally exposed to alcohol and children with ADHD may both experience challenges with:

These two groups of children may also experience different challenges. In particular, children with FASD may experience greater difficulty with:

  • Tasks involving high mental demand: holding information in their minds while manipulating that information; shifting their attention from one thing to another. (Whereas children with ADHD have more difficulty focusing their attention on a task and sustaining their attention)
  • Transferring verbal information into memory (whereas children with ADHD have more trouble remembering already learned verbal information)
  • Problem solving
  • coordinating movements smoothly
  • Adaptive functions (i.e. social skills, daily living skills)
  • Lower IQ
  • When given a letter of the alphabet, children with FASD had a harder time producing as many words as they can beginning with that letter in a set time span.
  • Shifting attention between multiple focus points 

Some possible causes behind hyperactivity are:

  • Genetics
  • Impact of prenatal alcohol exposure on attention systems in the brain
  • Behavioural presentations of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression

The implications of attention, hyperactivity, and distractibility are huge. With the right intervention, children, adolescents, and adults may find they are better able to follow instructions, stay still/calm and processing the sensory stimuli of their surroundings. Strategies that either help to improve or support intentional functioning and hyperactivity can help individuals with FASD best access their skills including their academic ability and behaviour in social situations.


Movement Attention & Learning
Video presentation by Chris Rowan on how to increase focus incoorporating movement (from POPFASD)

Teach to Strengths/Needs: Attention Difficulties
A student perspective on strategies that may help with attention difficulties (from POPFASD)

Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): A Comprehensive Guide For Pre-K -8 Educators
FASD overview, teaching and learning strategies for the classroom (Written by Chandra D. Zieff, M.Ed. and Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, Ph.D.)
Attention and hyperactivity: pp. 51-55

What Educators Need to Know about FASD: Working Together to Educate Children in Manitoba with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
FASD overview; common characteristics of FASD; strategies for teachers and parents to assist in meeting the needs of children (from Healthy Child Manotiba)
Attention and hyperactivity problems: pp. 39-40

Understanding Distractibility and Inattention -Nathan E. Ory
Ory offers strategies to help with a person who is showing distractibile or inattentive behaviours (from POPFASD)

Medication Management in FASD
Video webinar with handouts by Dr.David Shih: Contains information on steps to take before using medications, medication for treating insomnia, aggression, anxiety disorders, ADHD and mood disorders in FASD as well as what these medications can and cannot do (from FASD CMC Alberta)

Becoming a Successful Adult Learner
Video presentation with handouts by Lindsay McKerness, Emily Gidden (MSW) and Denise Theunissen (MEd). Profiles the Bow Valley College program in Alberta- transitioning as an adult learner to post secondary schools with supports for learning disabilities. Concentration strategies used in the program are discussed in section 5 (from FASD CMC Alberta)

Environment: Strategies for managing classroom environment
Video with strategies and suggestions to support learning through a structured classroom environment. Contains suggestions to minimize distractions in the environment (from POPFASD)

Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: Building Strengths, Creating Hope (Programming for Students with Special Needs: Book 10)
Overview of FASD; Concepts for teaching and strategies to help with learning needs (from Alberta Education)
Attention information and strategies: pp. 86-89


The Alert Program A program for teaching self regulation to children with disabilities

Visual Schedules
Visual schedule resources for individuals with special needs (from Do2Learn). Visual schedules may help individuals to stay focused on the task at hand

Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Effects: A Resource Guide for Teachers
Website containing information (along with strategies) for teachers about students with FASD, attention problems, cause and effect thinking, social skills, personal skills, memory, language, motor skills, and specific academic subjects (from BC Ministry of Education)