5 key impacts of FASD

Chronological age and developmental age might not match

What does this mean in a police setting? Someone who presents as a 21 year old may have a brain impairment that means they are operating at the cognitive age of an 8 or 10 year old. This can have implications for interviews, understanding instructions, and demonstrating compliance.  

What are practical outcomes that can arise? An individual may present to you or others as a rational adult while experiencing and interpreting the world at the functional age of a child. This can result in an individual being sanctioned for actions without them understanding why. This lack of understanding that some of their actions may attract punishment may continue. This means that sanctions may not act as a deterrent for future unwanted activity in some cases.

Strategy to modify practices:

a)      Gauge what their developmental age might be and start to adapt your questions to match their capacity during an interview. This can result in better and more reliable interviews.

b)      What might at first appear to be a failure to comply might, in fact, be a lack of understanding about what is being asked. With this in mind, modify instructions and test understanding by asking individuals to repeat what you are asking them to do or to explain in their own words what is being asked.

Scenario: During a curfew check, the officer encounters the subject out on the street in breach of conditions. When questioned, the subject doesn’t seem to understand the issue and is acting “childlike”. The officer is frustrated, writes up the breach and takes the subject into custody. Modification: Ask the subject to explain the “rules” that apply to them about being out at night. Ask if they can explain their “conditions”. If there is clear misunderstanding, explain the rules to them in plain and simple language.  Consider following up with probation to explore the possibility of assessment and review of conditions to avoid unnecessary administrative charges due to lack of understanding.

Processing speed

What does this mean in a police setting? An individual witness, offender, and/or victim may struggle with remembering and processing information. This may impact interviews because they might not be able to recall information in the ways that you are expecting. With this in mind, think about how you ask for information and be patient as they process that request.

What are practical outcomes that can arise? An individual may appear to be ignoring or failing to comply with instructions which may prompt an escalation of force to produce compliance. They may in fact be attempting to comply, but processing the instructions much more slowly than expected.

Quick tips to modify practices:

a)      Speak in short and concise sentences.

b)      If there is an activity that is to be performed, don’t assume it is implicitly understood. Outline each step. Test their understanding.  

Scenario: Police are dispatched to a residence where there might be an altercation taking place. Officers arrive on scene and find a young person on the lawn yelling at the residents who are at the door. The young person appears to be quite upset. Officers ask the young person to calm down. The young person seems to ignore their instruction and runs at the residents. The officers issue a command to stop. Several officers yell at the same time that the young person must stop or be arrested. The young person appears to ignore this instruction, and officers move in and make an arrest to maintain the peace. During the arrest, one of the police officers issues instructions for the subject to put their hands behind their back. Again they do not immediately comply and seem to be ignoring the police officer. The officer escalates use of force to have the young person comply with the instruction. Modification: Slow down the instructions. Have one person speak at a time. Issue a clear single command. Ask the subject if they understand what is being asked.

Sensory processing

What does this mean in a police setting? Individuals with FASD may experience a wide-range of challenges related to their sensory processing patterns. Specifically, individuals can experience hypo-sensitivity (low response to a stimulation) or hyper-sensitivity (high response to a stimulation). Someone with FASD might be quite distracted if the space you are working in is challenging for them. Their sensitivity is not something that can be overcome, but it may be persistent and may often result in a debilitating experience for them in particular spaces.  

What are practical outcomes that can arise? An individual who is persistently distracted or overwhelmed by their surroundings will experience challenges answering questions and delivering details. This may affect the interview process, and also have substantive impact on the outcome of an investigation.

Quick tips to modify practices:

a)      Try to remove distractions. If you are on a loud street, try to move to a quieter location. If the lights in a room are fluorescent, they may be very harsh for some people: consider dimming them or finding another light source. If the space you are working in has strong odors, consider moving locations.

b)      An individual with hypo-sensitivity may also have a very high pain tolerance. If they appear injured but indicate they are not, offer assistance. Their experience of pain might not be a good measure of the extent of their injuries, which might be more significant than they realize.

Scenario: The subject is taken into custody as the witness to an assault. Once in the interview room the subject appears to be distracted and doesn’t focus on the questions being asked. The officer gets frustrated and brings in a colleague to help, but they have the same results.  The witness gets more and more agitated and wants to leave the interview room. Police consider cutting the witness as unreliable. Modification: Scan the room that you are in – is it quiet, are there any sounds or smells that you can detect that might be difficult for someone with sensory processing challenges? If you can, modify the room, or move into another room without fluorescent overhead lighting. Try to interview in as quiet a place as possible. Ask the person if it works to do the interview in the room that you are in – they might identify an issue you cannot detect.


What does this mean in a police setting? Confabulation is the blending of facts and non-facts. It is one effect of the cognitive disabilities associated with FASD and can result in an individual blending things they have been told or have seen on television or in movies with their own lived experience. This should not be confused with “lying”, as the information they are sharing has, in many cases, become fact for them. With that in mind, consider that timelines that don’t always match up and/or stories that seem to be one part “true” and one part “false” can have truth in them. It may be a challenge to delineate at times. Don’t assume their intention is to deceive.

Quick tips to modify practices:

a)      Review the types of questions that you are asking in order to test how leading they are – are you, in fact, providing facts that are becoming part of a story that you are creating?

b)      Realize that your witness’ story could be subject to change and influence in ways that you might not expect. Consider expanding the collection of corroborating physical evidence or additional witnesses to validate the parts of the story that are needed.

What are practical outcomes that can arise? Individuals who struggle with keeping a story or narrative intact can deliver what seem to be inaccurate statements to police, Crown, or the courts. This can lead to:

  • misunderstanding
  • a deep impact on cases
  • \charges for making false claims or reports when in fact there was no intent to do so. 

Scenario: A victim comes forward and makes an allegation of sexual assault. The investigator’s original notes lay out a clear and concise storyline. As detectives continue their investigation little parts of the story appear to shift or change entirely. The detectives begin to question the victim’s story and wonder if this is a false allegation as parts of the story begins to sound like the plot from a popular movie. Modification: It is not uncommon for someone with FASD to mix their own experience with content from something they have seen but not experienced themselves. Recognizing that an individual has FASD can help investigators and justice workers better prepare them for trial, to hold onto the facts of the case and to be able to highlight other content that is not relevant to the case.

Executive Functioning

What does this mean in a police setting? Individuals with FASD may struggle with time management, planning, and associated skills. In practice this can mean that they may not be able to recall rules, or to remember instructions that were delivered at a previous time. They may struggle to remember important dates or appointments. It may also be difficult for them to create an alternative plan if a primary plan cannot be executed as intended.

What are practical outcomes that can arise? These challenges to executive function may have a very significant impact on outcomes in the criminal justice system as individuals with complex needs struggle to meet and maintain conditions. Requirements to report to probation or to keep a curfew may be easily breached without intent or understanding.

Quick tips to modify practices:

a)      Repeat instructions and state them in plain and understandable language, recognizing that a failure to recall a rule or instruction is likely symptomatic of disability rather than wilful disregard.

b)      For important dates or appointments, try to build a mechanism for reminders so that the individual has help remembering the appointment.

Scenario: A witness in a high profile case appears to be less and less reliable as the trial date nears. The Crown has detectives involved to work closely with the witness as they  prepare to give evidence.  However, the witness continues to miss meetings and there is concern that they are not going to appear on the day of  trial. The Crown is prepared to issue a warrant. Modification: The witness may be having trouble remembering their scheduled appointments to prepare for court, and may not remember the court date and time. Coordinate with the Crown to have someone send regular reminders and if necessary pick the witness up on the day of court. Try to use a range of reminder strategies including written and electronic prompts.