Article Summary: Neurocognitive functioning in young offenders with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

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Without proper support and intervention, individuals with FASD are at risk for adverse outcomes such as disrupted school experience, mental health issues, inappropriate behavior, substance use and involvement with the justice system. Along with neurocognitive impairment experienced by those with FASD, environmental factors such as neglect, abuse and poverty increase one’s risk of such adverse outcomes. The high rate of youth and young adults involved in the justice system is of particular concern and an area that merits further research. The neurocognitive, adaptive and social deficits seen in those with FASD impairs their understanding of the legal system, and places them in an even more vulnerable position. The current study looks at neurocognitive functioning in youth who have been incarcerated who have FASD, versus those without FASD.

Main Findings

  • Those with FASD scored lower on tests of working memory
    • Implications: challenges in working memory makes it more difficult to weigh risks and benefits of a situation, and follow rules and instructions
  • Verbal IQ was lower among individuals with FASD
    • Implications: this may pose a challenge when in the courtroom, or interacting with officers
  • The group of individuals with FASD showed poorer performance on simple processing speed tests
    • Implications: this may be a challenge when in fast-paced, high-pressure situations (i.e. arrests, court proceedings, etc.)
  • Cognitive flexibility is more impaired in individuals with FASD
    • Implications: inability to adapt may prevent people from breaking a pattern of unlawful behavior
  • Adolescents with FASD scored lower on tests measuring executive functioning relative to their age group than younger children
    • Implications: indicates a need for early intervention to prevent adverse outcomes
  • No difference between those with or without FASD on motor tests and inhibition tasks, visual scanning, processing speed, visuo-motor tracking, and verbal memory
    • Implications: may indicate strengths among those with FASD

Take-home message
Youth with FASD are 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers without FASD, representing 23% of the incarcerated youth population. Young offenders with FASD scored lower than offenders without FASD on numerous measures, assessing various aspects of neurocognitive function. This study showed areas of strengths and weaknesses in this population, which can help identify important areas of intervention to prevent involvement in the justice system, and improve outcomes for individuals with FASD.

Authors: Katherine Flannigan, Jacqueline Pei, Andrew Burke, Roy Frenzel, Carmen Rasmussen

Journal: International Journal of Law and Psychiatry

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