Can a Child Get SSI Disability for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)?

Social Security recognizes that fetal alcohol syndrome can be a disability and may grant benefits to a child whose symptoms are severely limiting.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) isn't a single birth defect but rather a cluster of related impairments that some infants are born with after being exposed to alcohol before birth. It's the most severe of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), a group of conditions caused by alcohol use during pregnancy.

The effects of a pregnant mother's substance abuse on an infant vary significantly from child to child. Some children show no symptoms, while, in severe cases, FAS can be a lasting disability. Whether or not a child can receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits depends on the severity of the child's symptoms.

Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Many children born with fetal alcohol syndrome have a mix of physical and mental or cognitive problems. These impairments can range from mild to severe.

Babies born with FAS might exhibit any of the following symptoms at birth:

  • low birth weight
  • heart, kidney, or bone problems
  • problems with vision or hearing, and
  • deformities of the joints, limbs, or fingers.

During infancy, children with FAS might display the following symptoms:

  • sleeping problems
  • problems with feeding (due to difficulties sucking)
  • slow physical growth (both height and weight), and
  • failure to meet physical milestones such as sitting up without help.

As children with FAS grow up, more symptoms can become apparent, such as:

  • speech and language delays or developmental delays
  • poor coordination, which might delay abilities such as riding a bike
  • poor fine motor skills, including poor handwriting skills
  • poor socialization skills, including difficulty making and keeping friends
  • low IQ
  • sensory problems, including overreaction or underreaction to stimulus
  • anxiety
  • learning disabilities, including poor reasoning and judgment skills, and
  • behavioral problems, such as:
    • poor impulse control
    • lack of awareness of personal boundaries
    • poor anger management, and
    • difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity (including ADHD).

FAS symptoms often become worse with age—especially behavioral issues. There's no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, and treatment is based on individual symptoms.

How a Child Meets the Technical Requirements for SSI Disability Benefits

To be eligible for children's Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits, a child must:

  • be younger than 18
  • meet the financial qualifications of this needs-based program, and
  • have a qualifying disability (see the medical requirements below).

To meet SSI's financial (technical) requirements, a child must have a low income and few resources. Social Security will consider the child's income and assets and those of other family members living in the child's household. So, some of your income will count toward your child's eligibility.

For your child to qualify for SSI, both of the following must be true:

Your deemed income (the amount the SSA counts) is any income remaining after subtracting living allowances for yourself and other family members. Some types of income aren't included in deemed income, like the following:

  • public assistance (like TANF or federal housing assistance)
  • the first $20 of unearned income (like unemployment or interest income), and
  • the first $65 per month, plus one-half of the remaining earned income.

Your child must also meet the SSI resource limit ($2,000 for a one-parent household and $3,000 for a two-parent household). Like your income, not everything you own counts toward the limit. Learn more about which assets Social Security counts for SSI purposes.

Meeting the Medical Requirements for SSI Disability Benefits with FAS

Medically, there are two ways in which a child can qualify for SSI disability benefits:

  • by meeting the requirements of a listing from the Social Security "blue book," or
  • by functionally equaling the listings.

Meeting a Disability Listing With FAS

Fetal alcohol syndrome generally affects multiple body systems. Social Security does have disability listings that address impairments that affect multiple body systems (childhood listing 110.00 and adult listing 10.00), but fetal alcohol syndrome isn't included in this listing because of the variety of impairments those with FAS can have.

Instead, Social Security evaluates FAS symptoms under specific listings for the affected body systems. Below are some of the listings that a child with FAS might meet:

For your child to meet one of the above listings, you must provide medical evidence showing the child meets all the listing requirements. For your child's condition to be "equal a listing," you must show that the child has an impairment that's similar to one of the listed impairments and that it's equal in severity and duration.

Children with FAS whose limitations are mainly cognitive or behavioral are likely to be evaluated under the listing for neurocognitive disorders.

Functionally Equaling the Listings With FAS

A child who doesn't meet or equal one of the above listings might still qualify medically for SSI disability benefits—if you can show that the child's limitations are "functionally equivalent to" the listings. To functionally equal the listings, your child must have marked limitations (serious) in two areas of functioning or an extreme limitation (very serious) in one area.

Social Security will look at your child's ability to function compared to other children of the same age in the following six areas:

  • acquiring and using information
  • attending and completing tasks
  • interacting and relating with others
  • moving about and manipulating objects
  • self-care, and
  • health and physical well-being.

Children with fetal alcohol syndrome can have physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that limit their ability to function in several areas.

For example, your child's ability to move about, manipulate objects, and perform self-care independently could be limited by physical symptoms like:

  • problems with vision or hearing
  • deformities of the joints, limbs, or fingers
  • poor coordination or fine motor skills, or
  • sensory issues.

More importantly, a child's ability to appropriately, effectively, and independently learn information and complete tasks appropriate for their age could be adversely affected by many cognitive problems, including:

  • speech and language delays
  • low IQ
  • learning disabilities
  • difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity
  • difficulty understanding concepts, and
  • poor problem-solving skills.

Many emotional problems that can result from FAS could affect a child's ability to complete tasks that others their age could complete without assistance and to interact with others appropriately, such as:

  • poor socialization skills
  • poor impulse control
  • poor awareness of personal boundaries
  • poor anger management
  • stubbornness, and
  • extreme nervousness.

Learn more about how a child can qualify for SSI by functionally equalling the listings.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Presumptive Disability

For certain conditions, Social Security will use a "presumption of disability" to pay benefits for up to six months while still making the disability determination. Though it's unlikely, someone with FAS might qualify for one of several impairments on the list for presumptive disability (PD). The list includes:

  • deafness
  • severe mental deficiencies of a child who is at least seven years old
  • low birth weight, and
  • terminal illness in which the child isn't expected to live more than six months.

For more information, see our article on presumptive disability benefits.

Continuing Disability Reviews for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

After your child begins receiving disability benefits, Social Security will periodically perform continuing disability reviews (CDRs) to confirm that your child is still disabled and eligible for benefits. There are three basic CDR guidelines for children who receive SSI disability for FAS:

  • Children with FAS can expect to have a CDR every three years if Social Security expects that the child's condition might improve.
  • Children receiving benefits based on low birth weight will have a CDR before they reach one year of age.
  • Once a child receiving SSI turns 18, Social Security will conduct a CDR to see if the child meets the adult disability requirements.

Keep in mind these timelines are guidelines. Social Security might actually review your child's case sooner.

For more information, see our section on continuing disability reviews.

Other Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Fetal alcohol syndrome falls on the more severe end of the fetal alcohol spectrum. Less involved types of alcohol-related disorders, sometimes called partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS), include conditions like:

  • alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), and
  • alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).

ARND typically causes intellectual disability, learning disabilities, and problems with behavior, attention, and poor impulse control. ARBDs include problems with the heart, kidneys, vision, or hearing. Social Security assesses these conditions in the same way as fetal alcohol syndrome—based on the body system affected.

Note that adults can also get disability benefits for the limitations caused by fetal alcohol syndrome if they last into adulthood.

How to Apply for Disability for Fetal Alchohol Syndrome

Adults can apply for disability benefits online, by phone, or in person. Learn more in our article on filing an adult claim.

The options are different for children because the process is different. Applying for SSI disability benefits for a child is a two-step process:

  1. You let Social Security know that you want to file a child's application.
  2. You work with a Social Security representative to complete and submit the application.

You can notify Social Security of your intent to file a child's SSI application by calling the national office at 800-772-1213 or by contacting your local Social Security field office. You can also request an appointment to file a child's SSI application using an online form. Or start the child's claim by submitting a child disability report online.

Once you take one of the above steps, Social Security will contact you with an appointment to finish the child's application during an interview (by phone or in person).

(Learn about other Social Security benefits available for children, including benefits for disabled adult children.)

Updated March 28, 2024

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