Let’s lay our cards out on the table at the start, shall we? I think that most kids that are adopted end up being labeled as children with special needs. They all need extra love, support, and help. Every single one will need a parent who is extra considerate, kind, and intent on building a connection. That being said, I don’t think that the question you are asking is, “should I adopt a baby who might have some cognitive delays, or attachment issues but is otherwise average looking, speaks normally and on time, and is otherwise okay?”  The question really is “Should you consider the option of adopting a baby or child is known to have special needs as designated by doctors and the school system?”. 

What Does it Mean to Have Special Needs? 

Down syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, heart issues, and limb deformities, among others, are typically the things people refer to when they think about special needs. There are entire branches of adoption agencies whose whole goal is to get kids who will need extra care and may perhaps die before their fifth birthday without intervention into a family who loves, protects, and supports them. 

What Kinds of Special Needs Are You Prepared For? 

So, should you consider special needs when thinking about adoption?  I’ll try to talk you through the ins and outs of why you should or shouldn’t. To answer the question, I’ll say yes. Yes, you should always consider special needs when thinking about adoption. Why? Because anything can happen. A baby could lack enough oxygen at birth and have cerebral palsy and be wheelchair-bound most of their life. A family can get in a car accident and a child may have a traumatic brain injury as a result. Does that child then not need a family to love and support them? 

My son was diagnosed with autism last year after having lived with us for five years and having three different psychological assessments done prior. Now, more than ever he is considered to have special needs. I don’t love him any less or more than my other kids since his diagnosis. So yes, before you consider any adoption think about what a child with extra needs will mean for your family. If you absolutely cannot imagine a life where IEP meetings, doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, surgeries, and specialists take up half of your time then you may need to reevaluate your choice to adopt.  We chose to not pursue children with previously expressed special needs. That did in no way prevent us from ending up with kids who had previously undiagnosed issues. The unfortunate truth is, many children who were adopted, especially from orphanages overseas, or CPS have experienced tremendous trauma that will impact them for the rest of their lives. There is no way of knowing what may come up after the adoption paperwork is finalized. 

Family Support 

If you are interested in adopting a child with special needs but your immediate family is not, you will have to think about the possibility of parenting alone. Even if your spouse is on board, if your other children or close family are not, you will be fighting uphill battles all the time. 

Can you afford child care for a child with special needs? Do you have family or friends that can give you a break?  Speaking as a mama who insisted she would never need a babysitter or a day off because she was so ready to be a mom full time, you will need a break. Truly. Even with the deepest love, and most compassionate heart, caretaker burnout is a real thing that happens. Love can overcome a multitude of issues but physical and emotional exhaustion isn’t one of them, not long-term at any rate.

All of that being said, do you still want to pursue adoption?  I think you should if you think you can handle it. Kids need families. They cannot heal from emotional and physical scars without help and love from a family who cares about them and will advocate for their needs being met.  If you are still saying “Yes, I think we can do this thing” then let’s move onto the specifics. 

If you’re willing to consider kids with special needs, you should break down for yourself and your case manager what exactly you think you are prepared to deal with. If physical issues are do-able such as a child being wheelchair-bound or having prosthetics, but mental complications seem an impossible hurdle, make note of that. It’s important to understand your limits. 

Alternatively, if you think a child with down syndrome, autism, or learning delays would be welcome in your home and community, but your active lifestyle makes the idea of a child in a wheelchair seem untenable, make your caseworker aware of that too. Can you physically handle lifting a child in and out of a wheelchair? Can you advocate for their rights at school where you need to fight for the bare minimum accommodations? 

What Can You and Your Family Handle? 

Are you a talker and do you like being talked to a lot? I found out that I’m extremely introverted and half of my kids are talkers. They have ADHD and while they can use coping strategies, it seems almost impossible for them to not talk my ears off. It is a daily struggle for me to make them feel heard, while also allowing myself the space I need to regroup. My personal fix is that when I am making dinner I wear noise-canceling headphones. It muffles the noise and makes me less likely to get angry for no reason. You may need to find your personal fix.

Can you talk to a bunch of people you don’t know to advocate for your child? I hate phone calls. Emails and texts, I can do fine but phone calls do me in. I don’t know what it is about them but I have to give myself a pep talk before I make one. Last year, I had to make so many phone calls. I gave myself so many pep talks I could become a life coach. If only I could stand being around and talking to people. Anyway, if you are like me, at least prepare yourself for the inevitability of getting out of your comfort zone. I’m not saying don’t adopt or don’t consider special needs if you are intimidated by phone calls, be aware that you will have to get comfortable with them.

At the end of the day, what it will boil down to is how you and your family feel about children with special needs. If you just pity them that isn’t the same as having compassion and in the long run, will cause damage to your relationship. If you feel like you can love any child no matter what needs they have, I suggest spending time around some kids that have the types of needs your future child might have. Kids are not stereotypes and one person with down syndrome or autism is not all people with down syndrome or autism. You may find that you are more aggravated than you imagined you could be with a child who hums tunelessly or flaps their hands when they are upset. The time to figure this out is before a vulnerable child is in your living room expecting you to be their mom or dad. 

Be Realistic

I’m going to share something that will probably make my husband sound like a terrible person. He isn’t. He is a wonderful, doting, loving father to our kids, a fantastic husband, a faithful, hard-working employee, and so much more to so many other people. He did not want to foster or adopt children with special needs. He was fairly adamant he would be a bad dad to kids who didn’t understand reading and math. He is academically gifted and struggles to understand how things that are as easy as breathing to him are a struggle for someone else. He is also hypersensitive to high-pitched noises and repetitive sounds. He knows this about himself and made it very known during our home study. I used to work in special education so you can imagine my views are a bit different. Regardless, that was our compromise.   

Well, as I previously stated, our oldest son was just diagnosed on the autism spectrum. There have been great struggles between my husband and son because they do not understand one another. Because of his history, my son struggles with all school subjects and with developing relationships. He and I are close and share a love of all things art, Legend of Zelda, and biting sarcasm that he may have picked up from me personally.  Why am I telling you this? Well, when we started to foster the children hadn’t ever been in foster care. They hadn’t ever been to a doctor. There was no way of telling our kids had any special needs that couldn’t be rectified with adequate food, clothing, shelter, love, therapy, and time.

 I was overly optimistic. I was also wrong. Our son needs more care than he can get here. It’s a long story but he is in a residential treatment facility now. He is getting the help he needs for his problems. We were not enough.  I would not change our story except that I wish I would have realized that sooner. He maybe could have gotten more of the help he needed in our home if I had known then what I know now.  My husband struggled. Our relationship struggled.  So, just be aware that almost anything can happen in adoption. You may request any type of child you want but this isn’t like picking a puppy from the shelter. Things you had no idea were ever an issue can pop up a few years into the adoption and there is no such thing as a return policy on children. You cannot give them back or give them away to someone else if things don’t go the way you expect. This is for good reason. I just want you to be fully aware. You need to know you and your family’s strengths and limitations. 

You will need to learn what it means to be an advocate for your child but also how to let them grow up. As easy as it would be to baby your ten-year-old who is developmentally more like a four or five-year-old, it is important to not enable them to their detriment.  We realized almost too late that our 14-year-old was used to letting others speak for him. It is the easiest thing in the world to take his order when we get the little kid’s orders and order for him. Sometimes, logic states that this needs to happen. However, more and more now we insist he orders on his own when the waiter comes to the table and we have started with the little girls as well. I’m making sure he learns life skills like washing and drying his own clothes, cooking a few basic meals, cleaning up his own mess, and things like that. He is mentally closer to an eight-year-old than a 14-year-old because of the trauma he faced. He is maturing and growing but it is slower. He defaults to letting people do and say things for him. Some of it is laziness but some of it is simply learned passivity. 

Are You Willing to Consider Special Needs Adoption? 

So, should you consider special needs when considering adoption? Yes. Absolutely. Even if in your consideration you decide that there are certain things you can or cannot handle. These kids need homes with people who are willing to love, protect, care, and advocate for them, as well as enable them to grow. Does that sound like you? If you would like to know from parents who are already there visit www.adoption.com/forums and talk with people like you.  There is help and support from people who have been in the same place you have been, thinking about their future family.

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.