Tammy Penna was 17 when she learnt she was pregnant. She was in hospital after a car accident, having a barrage of tests, and was shocked to learn the pill had failed. She was eight weeks along.
Despite the fact that her accident had been caused by her drink driving, no one mentioned alcohol to her; no doctors or nurses warned her about drinking in pregnancy.
“I used to go out with friends and have maybe 10 or 15 drinks in a week,” Tammy says. “When I got pregnant I kept drinking, but not to the same level – I only drank occasionally, not like I used to. Maybe a few drinks every couple of weeks.
“There was actually a TV commercial at the time that said two glasses a day was fine [during pregnancy]. And no one ever mentioned it to me, or said anything about it, so I just thought it would be okay.
“To be honest, it was the last thing on my mind.”
After giving birth to her daughter Crystal, Tammy settled into life as a teen mum. But it didn’t take long to realise her little girl was different from other children – she had sensory issues that made it almost impossible to take her to brightly lit, busy shopping centres, and in her first year of school, she was diagnosed with dyslexia.
Crystal was diagnosed with ADD, and a psychologist thought she also had attachment disorder. Her memory was terrible, and she had vision and hearing problems. She was also found to have scoliosis.
Crystal’s inability to focus in the classroom meant she spent a lot of time mucking around and distracting other students. Each time, she would be banished to a quiet, empty room, away from other children – and there, she would be able to do her work. She would then be taken back to the noisy classroom.
“Then it would all just start all over again,” Tammy sighs. “I thought, ‘She’s capable, she’s just being so difficult and naughty. Why is she like this?’”
Tammy was spending thousands of dollars on different specialists for her daughter, and had private tutors to help her learn all throughout her school career. She was told that if Crystal was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome she would be able to get government assistance, but something held her back. She knew that wasn’t the real cause of Crystal’s problems – there was just something they were all missing.
And finally, when her daughter was 17, the puzzle was solved.
“I have a friend who’s a social worker and she was doing some research on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She rang me and said ‘Go on the internet and look into this’,” Tammy says. “So I went and looked it up, and straight away knew it was what she had.”
Tammy learnt all she could about foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), discovering that it’s a group of mental and physical defects that can occur in a baby when the mother drinks in pregnancy. The symptoms vary from child to child, but often include psychological or behavioural problems, as well as physical damage.
Although some children with foetal alcohol syndrome have a distinctive look, with a smooth philtrum, thin upper lip, and small eye openings, Crystal showed no visible signs of the disorder – which had made it so much harder to diagnosis.
“My daughter is absolutely gorgeous, she’s a loving and caring person – if you look at her you’d think there’s nothing wrong with her,” she says.
“But by the time we saw the psychologist for the official diagnosis, I already knew the answer,” Tammy says. “I’d spent two days on the internet, just researching and crying.”
“If I’d known sooner, I would have adjusted my expectations of her. They were a lot higher than they should have been.”
Although it was hard for Tammy to come to terms with the diagnosis, there was also a sense of relief – she finally knew what was behind her daughter’s litany of issues.
“It’s a big thing to take on board, knowing you’re responsible for the troubles your child is having. But for the first time in 17 years, I realised I wasn’t a bad mother, and it wasn’t the way I was raising her,” she says.
There’s no treatment for FASD; even after diagnosis, parents are left to treat their child’s symptoms with a range of therapists and specialists. Nor do they receive financial support or payments from the government.
“If I had my time again, I’d just go for the diagnosis of Asperger’s,” Tammy says. “It’s really frustrating – that’s the only way to get support."
Now 21, Crystal continues to struggle. Lonely and friendless, she fell in with a bad crowd who took advantage of her naivety, Tammy says.
“She has poor decision making skills and has trouble with cause and effect; she doesn’t fully understand long-term consequences,” her mum sighs.
Crystal is now the mum of two girls, aged two and 18 months, and she and her partner are now expecting another baby in four weeks’ time. Tammy cares for her granddaughters in her Brisbane home.
After all she’s been through, and what she continues to experience daily with her daughter, Tammy is now speaking out about FASD in an effort to try to stop other women from drinking in pregnancy.
“People aren’t as aware as they should be. I just hope all women take the advice and not drink in pregnancy,” she says.
“It’s like a game of Russian roulette – some kids are okay if their mum has a few drinks, but a hell of lot aren’t.
“It’s just not worth the risk.”
Tammy appeared on Insight on SBS to discuss her experiences of FASD earlier this week. Watch the episode - which also features interviews with young people who have FASD - below, or visit the Insight website.
Essential Baby is proud to be a campaign partner for Pregnant Pause. The challenge aims to get Australians to ‘take a pause’ from alcohol consumption during the pregnancy of a loved one (wife, partner, daughter, sister, friend or work colleague), while raising money for The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, and awareness of FASD.
To learn more about the Pregnant Pause campaign, or to get involved, visit pregnantpause.com.au.