New Brunswick

Her son's disorder has been part of her world for years. Now this mom's focus is helping others

A few years after Tanya Walsh and her husband adopted their son Ben, they learned he has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It's now her job to work with other families with children who have a disorder that is far more common than many people know.

Tanya Walsh's job at the Vitalité Health Network connects her with families navigating life with FASD

A boy dressed in camo kisses his mother's cheek and hugs her tight.
Tanya Walsh says it breaks her heart that her son, Ben, is almost 14 and has never been invited to a birthday party. (Submitted by Tanya Walsh)

Tanya Walsh is pretty open when she describes Ben, her 13-year-old son. 

Ben struggles with impulsivity and has trouble regulating his emotions. He has temper tantrums, and he can be aggressive. He's hyperactive, doesn't sleep very much and has personal space issues. 

Tanya has regularly had bruises — and sometimes bloody noses — from Ben hitting, kicking and throwing things. 

And then you meet Ben on a good day and none of that makes sense.

He's sweet and eager, smiles a lot, and is keen to share stories — sometimes about his day or random memories from his life, often deferring to his mom with a quick "now you tell the rest, Mom." 

Ben knows he has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD. He also knows it makes him learn differently, and he know that it causes him to do things that might seem "rude" — as he puts it — to other people. 

"Underneath all of that is somebody who's eager to please and wanting love and attention, the same as everybody else," said Walsh. 

"Yeah, I agree with you, mom," Ben immediately added. 

A disorder with a high impact

FASD is the leading known cause of developmental disability in Canada, according to CanFASD, an interdisciplinary research network that includes the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada.

It's estimated that about four per cent of Canadians, or 1,451,600 people, have FASD. That's more than autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome combined, according to CanFASD. 

A red-headed boy with a big smile and a mug of hot chocolate
Ben Walsh was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder when he was seven years old. He's now 13. (Submitted by Tanya Walsh)

FASD is caused by alcohol exposure during the mother's pregnancy. It causes brain damage and growth problems. 

Symptoms can include an abnormal appearance, short height, low body weight, small head size, behavioural problems, learning difficulties, hyperactivity and problems with hearing and sight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 90 per cent will also experience mental health issues, said Walsh. 

None of that was on the radar for Walsh and her husband when Ben arrived in their lives after a long wait to expand their family. 

WATCH | Tanya Walsh and her son explain what's behind FASD behaviour: 

Meet a mom who wants you to understand more about FASD

4 months ago
Duration 1:00
After advocating for her son for years, Tanya Walsh became a regional co-ordinator for Vitalité Health Network's N.B. FASD Centre of Excellence. She wants to empower families and spread greater awareness of FASD.

They adopted him after unsuccessful fertility treatments and a failed adoption, and while the Walshes knew Ben's birth mom "wasn't in a great place," they were grateful she was willing to give him to a couple who could provide a loving home. 

They soon started noticing issues with Ben's development, and what followed was a series of appointments and diagnoses.

When he was three, they were told he had autism. 

"It fit," said Walsh, "but I knew in my mommy gut that it wasn't right." 

After four years of exploring options for autism, Ben was referred to an autism specialist who soon determined Ben didn't have autism but rather FASD. 

A smiling boy with red hair and glasses standing in front of a brick wall with his arms crossed.
Ben Walsh was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. An expert later found he instead has FASD. (Submitted by Tanya Walsh)

That started the family down a separate — and unfamiliar — path. 

Then Walsh's husband lost a two-year battle with cancer. 

"I didn't even have time to grieve the loss of my husband because I was too busy navigating the system," said Walsh. 

Ben's needs, which had always been great, became too much to bear for a single parent. She describes Ben as "the Energizer bunny on steroids," and a boy he only slept two or three hours a night, which meant she usually slept less than that. 

She said she was "a walking zombie." 

She was approved for respite care in a therapeutic foster home two or three times a week, but they said Ben's needs were too high and declined to take him. 

He was eventually placed in a specialized unit in a group home. Walsh refused to give up her parental rights. She calls it "parenting from a distance." 

Bringing experience to the job

While she advocated for help for herself and Ben, she discovered the Vitalité Health Network's N.B. FASD Centre of Excellence, which provides services to families affected by FASD. 

According to its website, its mission is to prevent alcohol exposure during pregnancy, accurately diagnose people with FASD, and strengthen community resources by working with individuals, families and care providers.

Teenage boy and his mom sitting on a couch.
Tanya Walsh and her husband adopted Ben at birth. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

At the time, Walsh had to travel to the centre's regional co-ordinator in Moncton, since there wasn't one in Saint John. 

When Vitalité decided to put a co-ordinator in Saint John, Walsh applied for the job and got it in 2018. There are now two in Saint John. 

Walsh said her experience raising a child with FASD gives her a unique perspective and first-hand knowledge of what parents are going through. 

Walsh said she asked herself "why me?" a thousand times. 

"Why do I have to be a widow at 36? Why do I have to be a special needs parent? And why does it just feel like this black cloud is over me?

"And it's only been recently that I'm able to say that we're on the other side of that pain and that sorrow, and by …supporting other families and seeing the struggles, I now understand that that was maybe our purpose," said Walsh.

A graphic shows information about the prevalence of FASD.
The NB FASD Centre of Excellence estimates more than 31,000 New Brunswickers have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. (Submitted by Tanya Walsh/NB FASD Centre of Excellence)

"As much as our story sounds pity and despair and messy and sad and all of that, what we like to take away from it is that we're hopeful. And we want to help people be empowered and to know that it's OK to smile again and that there's brighter days ahead and this storm is only going to last temporarily."

'The judgment from people is horrendous'

Walsh said raising a child with FASD is exhausting and hard to figure out, and that she has learned how to "grieve the child we were expecting and love the child we have."

She also wants to help remove the stigma that mothers face. 

A teenage boy plays a video game on a handheld device while sitting on a couch.
Thirteen-year-old Ben Walsh plays Mario Kart on a Nintendo Switch. (Mia Urquhart/CBC)

Because the condition is preventable, there is a lot of stigma, and likely the reason there isn't the same support networks of parents as there are for some other disorders, said Walsh.

"The judgment from people is horrendous. The judgment our bio moms feel is indescribable," she said. 

She said 60 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned, "so you don't know what you don't know." 

Walsh also worries about children aging out of care. She said there's a "huge lack of services available for teens and young adults."

"It's a great possibility that when Ben turns 16, he will no longer be able to be part of the program he is currently in."

She worries about young people with FASD once they turn 19. 

"We have many teenagers who are forced to couch surf, and be homeless because of a lack of services — age 19, faced with homelessness but in the mind of an eight-year-old, wandering our streets with no love, no support.

"Can you imagine what that must feel like?"

A boy and his mom showing off their red sneakers.
Ben and his mom show off their red sneakers, a symbol of FASD awareness day on Sept. 9. The date 09/09 represents nine months of pregnancy. (Submitted by Tanya Walsh)


Mia Urquhart is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick, based in Saint John. She can be reached at

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now