FASD & the Justice System

Reframing behaviour means changing the way you or others view the conduct of the person with FASD. This shift in thinking will allow the observer to recognize that brain damage causes the dysfunctional behaviours of the person affected by FASD.

A recent study by the Department of Justice of Canada sought to gain insights from service workers with experience working with victims with FASD. When asked what they would recommend to help provide the best services possible for clients who have FASD, most identified training for all justice professionals.

If it were required that every judge, every crown, every defence attorney, every RCMP member had to have a knowledge of FASD, that would help us greatly. Because sometimes half the battle is just trying to convince somebody that there’s something going on.”  (Identifying the Issues)

It will always be important to remember that the primary disabilities of FASD are those that reflect underlying brain and central nervous system damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. They include neuro-behavioural challenges, poor executive functioning, memory problems, impaired judgment and other effects.                     

The next step in reframing is to recognize that although person with FASD may try, he or she often cannot meet age-appropriate expectations.  If you think offenders are misbehaving on purpose, reframe it; understand that their conduct may well be related to their primary or secondary disabilities.  

Think Can't Do not Won't Do.

Negative Behaviour

Misinterpretation-  “Won’t”

Accurate Interpretation –“Can’t”


Failure to appear

Missing probation meetings

Not abiding with conditions of release

Willful misconduct


Disregard for rules of court



Lose reminder slips and release conditions

Can’t understand the abstract concept of time

Have difficulty getting organized


Repeatedly making the same mistakes

Recidivistic actions

Correction does not work

 Willful misconduct


Cannot link cause to effect

Cannot see similarities

-Can’t remember

Often late

Late for court

Late for meetings

Late for community service work

Lazy, slow

Poorly parented

Willful misconduct

Cannot understand the abstract concept of time

Can’t remember

Repetitive behaviours

Hitching and wiggling around in court

Playing with loose change or clicking a pen


Seeking attention

Bothering others

Willful misconduct

 Neurologically-based need to learn by doing


Poor judgment

Inappropriate touching

Overly friendly with strangers

Inappropriate choice of peers

Commits illogical crimes

Poorly parented

Willful misconduct

Abused child



Misinterpret social cues from peers

Does not know what to do

Easily influenced

Lacks ability to learn from previous consequences

Overly physical

Inappropriate touching

Gets too close to others

Abusive, especially if intoxicated


Willful misconduct




 Over or under-sensitive to touch

Cannot relate social cues to boundaries

Is unable to act independently

Can’t perform community service effectively

Needs to be led all the time

Willful misconduct

Passive aggression

Chronic health problems

Cannot translate verbal directions into action

Can’t remember


Source: Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Effects, A Resource Guide for Teachers, Appendix 3, 1996 (adapted by Mary Cunningham for Justice CD-ROM).