NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children who were exposed to large amounts of alcohol in the womb may have difficulty processing and reading emotions, leading to problems with their social skills and behavior, a new study shows.
The study, published in journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, looked at emotional and social behavior among 33 school-age children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
FASD is an umbrella term for the lasting developmental effects seen in some children with prenatal alcohol exposure. Its most severe manifestation is fetal alcohol syndrome, which is marked by stunted growth, facial deformity and serious nervous system and behavioral problems.
But more children develop what is known as alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, where only nervous system and behavioral problems are present.
In the current study, researchers found that children with FASD had more trouble with processing their own emotions, as well as reading emotional and social cues from others.
That was compared with 34 healthy children, as well as 30 with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition with which many children with FASD are mistakenly diagnosed.
FASD and ADHD do share some characteristics, the investigators note, but while children with ADHD may have behavior issues and problems socializing, it is not because they lack the proper understanding of cues.
"Our findings show that...overall, children with FASD have more severe behavioral problems," senior researcher Dr. Joanne Rovet, of the University of Toronto in Canada, said in a news release. The main problem, she explained, is "in understanding and interpreting another's mental states and emotions."
The findings, according to the researchers, help clarify the "profile" of children with FASD.
Based on her team's previous studies, Rovet said, children and teenagers with FASD appear more likely than their peers with ADHD to have more-serious, antisocial behavioral problems like cheating, lying and stealing.
The findings also point to areas where children with FASD could be better helped: interpreting facial expressions and other social cues.
"These difficulties predict their behavior problems and are linked to their social development," Rovet said. "It is imperative that these children receive assistance in social and emotional processing domains, specifically targeting interventions to deal with their unique deficits."
SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, online July 16, 2009.