Comparison of Adaptive Behavior in Children With Heavy Prenatal Alcohol Exposure or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder


Reprint requests: Sarah N. Mattson, PhD, 6363 Alvarado Court, Suite 209, San Diego, CA 92120; Fax: 619-594-1895;


Background:  Adaptive behavior, the ability to respond successfully to everyday demands, may be especially sensitive to the effects of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure. Similar adaptive dysfunction is common in other developmental disorders including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is frequently present in alcohol-exposed children and this overlap in clinical presentation makes identification of alcohol-exposed children difficult. Direct comparison of children with prenatal alcohol exposure and ADHD may yield distinct patterns of cognitive and behavioral performance and add to growing knowledge of the neuropsychological and behavioral profile of prenatal alcohol exposure. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to compare adaptive behavior in children with histories of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure (ALC), nonexposed children with ADHD (ADHD), and typically developing controls (CON).

Methods:  Sixty-five children (ALC = 22, ADHD = 23, CON = 20) were selected from a larger ongoing study of the behavioral teratogenicity of alcohol. Alcohol-exposed and control participants were selected to match the ADHD subjects on age, sex, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity. Caregivers were administered the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, a semi-structured interview, and were asked to rate their child’s behavior on 3 domains of adaptive function. Data were analyzed using regression techniques.

Results:  Relative to controls, children in both the ALC and ADHD groups showed adaptive behavior deficits on all 3 domains and children in the ALC group were significantly more impaired than the ADHD group on the daily living skills domain. Within the ALC group, socialization standard scores were lower at older ages. This negative relationship between age and standard scores in the ALC group was also observed on the communication domain, a finding not previously reported.

Conclusions:  This study suggests that both children with prenatal alcohol exposure and children with ADHD show impairments in adaptive function relative to controls, but that the pattern of impairment differs between these clinical groups. Adaptive ability in children with prenatal alcohol exposure is characterized by an arrest in development, as evidenced by a lack of improvement with age in socialization and communication scores. In contrast, children with ADHD exhibit a developmental delay in adaptive ability as their scores continued to improve with age, albeit not to the level of control children. Continued research focused on elucidating the patterns of deficits that exist in alcohol-exposed children ultimately will lead to improved differential diagnosis and effective interventions.