Matt Sinclair was hallucinating and afraid. Last spring, the 33-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie had relapsed with methamphetamine and found himself standing face to face with a local police officer.
Today, Sinclair speaks calmly about the run-in, but he knows there was a lot on the line: his criminal record, his life outside of prison. The police officer spotted a shining silver band on Sinclair's wrist and asked him to read out the number on it. Sinclair was one of the first people to wear a new MedicAlert bracelet that lets first responders know he has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
“They brought me to my best friend’s house instead of bringing me to the hospital or putting me in the jail for the night,” Sinclair said.
In federal correctional facilities, up to 23 per cent of inmates have FASD, according to the Correctional Investigator of Canada — a rate 28 times higher than in the general population. Youth with FASD are 19 times more likely to be confined to a young-offender’s facility than their unaffected peers, according to a 2013 report from FASD ONE Justice Action Group in Ontario.
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FASD comprises an array of conditions that can affect anyone whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. Sometimes those conditions manifest physically — smaller head size and shorter height are common — but behaviour problems, poor coordination, and poor impulse control are also prevalent.
Sinclair, like many on the FASD spectrum, doesn’t always grasp the consequences of his actions. When he gets angry, frustrated, or confused, he shuts down, curls up in a ball, and freezes in place. He has a criminal record for theft, possession of drugs, and numerous parole breaches.
“People with FASD, we try to fit in with groups,” he says. “Unfortunately we fit in usually with the wrong crowd.”
Sinclair explains that he is suggestible, wanting people to be his friend, but not always understanding that — in what he calls “the drug-and-alcohol world” — some of those people might be talking to him for the wrong reasons.
“People will be like, ‘Go do this for me,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Oh you are my best friend so okay,’ even though that person doesn’t have my best interests,” he said.
The bracelet will not stop people with FASD from falling in with the wrong crowd — but Catherine Horluck of MedicAlert Foundation Canada says it may keep them from falling into the hands of the justice system.
“The vision is that the bracelet would provide equitable treatment for people with FASD in their time of need,” she said.
The pilot program launched in November 2015 in northern Ontario, and so far 79 people have registered to wear the bracelet. When first responders — whether police, paramedics, or nurses — see the bracelet, they’ll be able to access MedicAlert’s database, which will provide patient details and connect them with family or friends.
“I think many of my officers, like myself, had no idea that it’s a spectrum and there are strategies you can use to have a discussion with these folks,” said John Syrette, chief of the Anishinabek Police Service, which covers part of the area the pilot encompasses.
As part of the program, Syrette and his officers learned what FASD is and what the bracelet signifies. Syrette says his force also learned strategies for dealing with people on the spectrum.
“I hope officers will see this bracelet and think, I have to step back for a second and review my approach, because typically you are trying to take control of a situation and you are trying to bring closure as quickly as possible,” he said. “That’s probably not going to assist this person right now.”
After police got in touch with Sinclair’s contacts through MedicAlert, they took him to his friend’s house, where he was able to settle down — and thereby avoid a stay in the psychiatric centre and criminal charges.
“My best friend of 13 years listens to me talk, and I make better decisions based off of it,” Sinclair said. “He understands me completely.”
Sinclair, who is from Deschambault Lake, part of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, talks openly about his FASD. But Frances Pine, FASD coordinator at the North Shore Tribal Council, an original partner in the MedicAlert program, says there’s a stigma attached to the condition that can make talking about it difficult.
“A lot of people don’t want to confirm they have FASD, you know,” she said. “But when you actually look at the diagnostic criteria, it can happen to anybody.”
If a woman consumes seven drinks in one week or has two binge-drinking episodes (four or more drinks in one night) during her pregnancy, Pine explained, the child is at risk.
“That’s Christmas holidays. That’s frosh week. That’s a family reunion. It can happen to anybody,” she said. “Most women don’t know they are pregnant until between six and 12 weeks, and the threshold is you can start doing damage as early as two weeks.”
Pine says the new bracelet can help educate people and attenuate the stigma. It’s also an important tool for families affected by the FASD.
“It gives them a sense of security,” she says. “If you are not there for them in that moment and time when they need somebody, you want something there to help speak for them, because you know at that moment when their fight or flight is kicking in that they are not going to be thinking rationally.”
MedicAlert is helping 35 organizations who work with FASD-afflicted people bring the bracelet program — now in its second year — to their communities. The plan over the next two years is to make the bracelet and training accessible across Canada.
Sinclair knows his situation could’ve turned out differently had he not been wearing the bracelet that night last spring. He could easily be behind bars. Instead he’s running the FASD Northern Ontario Facebook page and doing advocacy work to reduce the stigma that surrounds the condition.
“If you are on the spectrum it’s being able to say, ‘Hey, I’m FASD — you have to do things different,’” he said. “I get the same results done; I just do it differently.”
Geraldine Malone is a Munk Global Journalism Fellow who covers Indigenous communities and the penal system.