Spend a little time researching adoption, and you’ll see the term “special needs” come up often. However, in relation to adoption, special needs may not be what you’re thinking. In U.S. foster care, for instance, special needs may be defined by specific factors such as age, race, or being part of a sibling group. These are considered special needs because these factors make children statistically less adoptable; this was the case for us when we adopted Lindsey at age 14.
For today, however, we’re focusing on the more broad definition of special needs, which includes medical conditions or physical, emotional, or mental handicaps. Children with these types of special needs are not uncommon within foster care adoptions and international adoptions.
Physical or medical conditions children may have include Down Syndrome, eye disease or blindness, malformation of limbs, heart defects, spina bifida, or cleft palate. Certain conditions are more common in particular countries, and some conditions that are untreatable in third world countries can be helped with the medical care available here in the United States. Many conditions are treatable through surgery or physical therapy or medications, but some are not treatable. Ask questions, and be as informed as possible.
Emotional or mental conditions include (but are not limited to) Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, ADHD, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Again, ask questions, and be as informed as possible, but don’t let any of these diagnoses scare you off without first talking to parents of children with similar diagnoses. Also keep in mind that each of these conditions may vary greatly, from mild to severe and everywhere in between.
An adoptive dad I know, whose son has severe brain trauma from injuries sustained as an infant, shared these words about considering adopting a child with special needs:
“One of the things we learned most was to see the child and not the file. There’s good and bad to that, but you have to be honest about your life and what you can and can’t change. They are always more than their medical history says and often every case worker, therapeutic foster parent and doctor have their own opinions about what and who the child is. Having/seeking a holistic picture certainly helped us in our process.”
Another friend, mom to three healthy biological children and one special needs adopted child, shared these words:
With three kids already, I didn’t feel like I could handle special needs, yet God gave us a child who was in therapy and in doctor’s offices 3-4 times a week for his first three years of life. Our journey was harder than I ever envisioned, yet God’s grace covered and equipped us every step of the way. Had I known what was coming I would have said “No” — but I would have missed out on some of the greatest joys of my life so far.
Nicole, another adoptive mom, shares her story. A few years after adopting a beautiful and perfectly healthy little girl, she and her husband Andrew (adopted himself after being born to a 12 year old girl) decided to adopt again. They were away on vacation when they got the call about their soon-to-be-son Gabriel. They learned that he’d been born with a heart complication which had required surgery. Nicole tells what it was like to meet Gabriel and what life has been like since she became his mom:
“We walked in to get our new 4 month old baby and fell in love instantly. But they had been wrong [about him looking healthy]. The baby was grey, wheezy, and small for his age. He had scars running the entire length of his small torso. He had been through the ringer.
Gabriel has a congenital heart defect called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. A long name that boils down to him only having half a heart. The entire left side of his heart is barely there. It’s too small to do it’s job of pumping oxygenated blood through his body. Up until about 15 years ago, HLHS was a death sentence. Babies died within a couple days of birth. Thankfully, medicine has made huge progress and now babies can be diagnosed in vitro and their lives can be saved.
Gabriel underwent open heart surgery at 4 days old and again when he was 3 months old. Doctors were able to reroute his blood from body to heart to lungs to heart to body using only the right side of his heart. There is one more surgery in this series but he currently isn’t a candidate for it since he has such low heart function.
There is no cure for HLHS. Without a full heart transplant, Gabriel will spend his life on heart medications and not being able to do as much as others his age. His heart pumps triple the speed of a healthy heart which means it’s going to wear out much, much faster. We are currently in a waiting game to see how he will respond to his growing body and changing demand on his heart muscle.
I’ve seen other children with this some condition and Gabriel is doing amazing. He gets tired quickly and is a sweaty mess when it’s hot outside, but that’s nothing compared to what we could be facing. His future is unsure. We are most likely looking at a heart transplant in the next few years as his heart starts to wear out.
Gabriel’s special needs are difficult because they aren’t obvious. It’s easy for me to forget how special his heart is because, well, he just seems so healthy.”
Nicole says, “I never saw myself doling out daily prescriptions or carting my child to a cardiologist every couple of months. I didn’t foresee early mornings in heart cath centers or planning for open heart surgeries. It’s not the life I thought I’d be living with my babies, but when I look into those insanely deep brown eyes I know that I wouldn’t trade his adoption for anything in the world.”
If a child were born to us with special needs, I believe most of us would do whatever it took to deal with our child’s needs. The difference with a special needs adoption is that parents know ahead of time that there will be challenges to deal with, and must choose whether or not to do so.
Choosing to adopt a special needs child does require a big commitment, but I think more of us could “handle it” than we tend to think.
New to this series? Here’s what you’ve missed:
1 – 10 Days of Adoption: Introduction
2 – Why is Adoption So Important?
3 – If We Want to Adopt, Where Do We Begin?
4 – Common Types of Adoption
5 – Greatest Misconceptions About Adoption
6 – Can We Afford to Adopt?
–> Tomorrow we’ll talk about a BIG question: bonding with adopted children.
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