When you begin your adoption process, one of the questions you will inevitably be asked by your agency or home study social worker is, “Are you open to adopting a child with special needs?” Many families hear this question and envision a child with some sort of severe disability or medical condition, but the reality is that there is a wide spectrum of what is considered “special needs” in adoption. Rather than rule out a special needs adoption altogether, it’s important to do some more research and learn more about all the various possibilities when it comes to what special needs might entail.

Often, especially in international adoption, children with any sort of medical condition or disability have their file marked as “special needs,” regardless of whether or not that condition is something that is treatable or the need is minor. For example, a child with strabismus (crossed eyes) would be marked as “special needs” but this is a condition that is very easy to correct. Some other conditions or diagnoses that are very common can get children labeled as “special needs” as well, depending on the circumstances. ADHD, learning disabilities, and even something as common as asthma can get a child marked as “special needs.”

So, when you are considering how to answer the question, “Would you be able to parent a child with special needs?”, take into consideration the full range of potential special needs, and discuss as a family what you think your family would be equipped to handle. For example, when my husband and I adopted, one of our criteria for special needs adoptions was that we didn’t feel financially equipped to parent a child who would need life-long care and would not be able to live independently as an adult. That scenario generally only occurs with individuals who are profoundly and severely disabled in some way, either physically or intellectually. While it can feel bad to be essentially “rejecting” a potential child, in adoption you have very little control in a lot of areas. This is one of the areas in which you can have some control to make sure that the child with whom you are matched is right for your family.

If you already have other children in the home, you need to take their needs into account as well. Would you have the time to truly give your full attention to your existing children if you adopted a child with special needs? How would this decision impact your finances and potentially impact their lifestyle or their future ability to attend college? Do any of your existing children also have special needs? Are there any conditions that would be incompatible with theirs? While it can be easy to think you would be noble and accept the needs of any child who came into your family, with adoption, you’re given the option to be selective in some ways to ensure you aren’t biting off more than you can chew, financially or otherwise.

Parenting a child with special needs can be remarkably rewarding in different ways than parenting a child who is not in some way disabled. Watching them reach milestones they were perhaps told they would never reach is fulfilling in a way only special needs parents understand. So, when considering whether you would adopt a child with special needs, make sure you know exactly which special needs would work with your existing family dynamic. Take the time to research specific conditions if you don’t know much about them to determine if you would be open to parenting a child with that condition. Most importantly, don’t discount the idea of “special needs” entirely, as there is such a wide range of types of conditions that are considered special needs.


Julianna Mendelsohn lives in sunny South Florida where, odds are, it is hot enough right now that she’s sweating just a little, no matter what she’s doing. She is the brains, brawn, blood, sweat, and tears behind The Adoption Mentor and is thrilled to be able to help others build their families through adoption. She is a former elementary school teacher, current MS in school counseling student, Sephora junkie, and the momma via domestic adoption to one lovely daughter.