Feature Friday: How Canadian Psychology Programs support FASD learning for Future Psychologists

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Written by Devon Heath (she/her), M.Ed., CanFASD Trainee

Hello everyone! My name is Devon, and I am a doctoral student from the University of Alberta and a member of the CanFASD Trainee Program.

I recently completed my master’s thesis on how professional psychology programs across Canada support FASD-related learning for future psychologists.

Psychologists and FASD

Psychologists have a unique role in diagnosing, assessing, and supporting a variety of individuals with different mental health needs and disabilities, including individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Because of the diversity and unique characteristics of individuals with FASD, it is crucial that psychologists are prepared to support individuals and their families with the best evidence-based care.

The problem is that most psychologists and mental health professionals feel unprepared to support individuals with FASD, and few receive FASD-related training opportunities. In my study, I wanted to see if faculty members in professional psychology programs felt the same way, given that professionals develop their knowledge, attitudes, and skills during their own training.

My research questions

I developed a Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices (KAP) survey to answer three key research questions:

  1. What is the faculty member’s level of FASD-related knowledge?
  2. Do faculty members of professional psychology programs across Canada feel prepared to teach students about FASD? If not, what are some possible barriers or perceptions preventing FASD from being a frequently taught topic?
  3. How often, if at all, is FASD being taught by faculty members?

Psychologists’ FASD-related knowledge

Similar to previous research with professionals in other areas of practice (e.g., education and justice), faculty members in psychology had a difficult time identifying prevalence rates of FASD. Participants did really well with fact-based knowledge questions and statements such as “there is no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.” All participants correctly answered that you cannot “see FASD” in a face.

However, most participants overestimated how often these facial characteristics occur among individuals with FASD. Furthermore, participants both overestimated or underestimated common adverse outcomes, such as physical and mental health disorders.

Psychologists’ comfort teaching about FASD

Regarding the second research question, many participants felt that FASD is an important topic, and that there is enough time to teach students about FASD within the curriculum. However, they simply did not feel prepared to teach their students about FASD. Interestingly, faculty members endorsed feeling prepared to support students through clinical activities but did not feel prepared to do the clinical activities themselves. Mostly, they reported being less inclined to provide assessment and intervention but were very confident in connecting individuals to services and other areas of support.

Current FASD content in post-secondary courses

Lastly, the results of my research demonstrated a lack of FASD content in the participants’ courses. Out of all the neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., autism, learning disorders, ADHD), some faculty members never teach students about FASD. None of the participants reported “always” teaching their students about FASD. In other words, FASD was the least taught disorder compared to other disorders in the same diagnostic category.

How can we motivate people to learn more about FASD?

This research shows the need for continued discussions around how to make FASD-related information more accessible and present in professional psychology training programs. Training experiences directly relate to how clinicians navigate their clinical practice after graduation, and professional development opportunities may not be the most effective method of training professionals on FASD.

I leave you with a challenge: How do we motivate people to learn about FASD beyond professional development opportunities? What sort of fun ways can we integrate FASD-related learning into professional training programs across Canada?

Devon Heath is a doctoral student from the University of Alberta and a member of the CanFASD Trainee Program.

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