As Tori Amos once said, “Some of the most wonderful people are the ones who don’t fit into boxes.” If you have the room in your home and your heart to foster or adopt a child, remember that there are many boys and girls with special needs who are waiting to join your family. You have most likely heard about children with special needs, but what exactly does that entail? Because the mental, physical, and emotional needs of children vary widely, special needs is a very broad description. In the world of adoption and foster care, the term “special needs” can entail more than just disabilities.

What Does Special Needs Mean?

Special needs is defined by Oxford as “particular educational requirements resulting from learning difficulties, physical disability, or emotional and behavioural difficulties.” However, according to the National Council for Adoption, special needs may also apply to children who are older and need to be placed sooner, children who need to be placed with their sibling groups, or children who have other barriers that may prevent their timely placement.

Because the federal government doesn’t have an official definition for “special needs”  the criteria can vary from state to state (and country to country). Race, gender, ethnicity, and age can all contribute to a child’s classification as “special needs.” Psychological conditions and physical limitations can all play a role in special needs consideration as well.

According to the Special Needs Alliance, there are approximately 134,000 children with special needs who are waiting to find permanent homes. The need for loving parents and stable homes are in high demand.

What Type of Assistance is Available When I Adopt A Child With Special Needs?

Because adopting a child with special needs can bring financial challenges, there are many forms of assistance you can receive. The Child Welfare Information Gateway is an excellent resource in finding this type of assistance. Here you can find helpful information including:

Adoption Assistance By State– This page can help you to navigate your state’s adoption assistance requirements. You may find your specific state’s definition of special needs, the eligibility requirements for receiving state funding, and the amount of assistance you may be able to receive. In addition to financial assistance, you may also find post-adoption support services and information about medical assistance.

The U.S. Adoption Assistance/Subsidy– Approximately 90 percent of children who are adopted through the foster care system are eligible to receive assistance. This may include monthly payments which can vary based upon your state, the child’s age, and the needs they have. Medicaid coverage, child care, and respite care are typically covered as well. You may also receive assistance with a one-time adoption cost reimbursement.

Types of Special Needs and the Care They Require

When considering adopting or fostering a child, it is helpful to be informed on the types of issues your child may be coping with. It is the goal of adoption agencies and state organizations to find the right family for every child, and they can help you to determine which children you are best equipped to parent. Before considering a special needs placement, ask yourself these questions: What types of disabilities are you prepared to handle? What types of physical and emotional challenges are you able to undertake? Does your insurance cover any outstanding medical costs? Are you willing to undergo any necessary training to help educate you in the area of your child’s needs? How do you feel about parenting a child of a different race? Are you willing to adopt an older child or teen? Can you bring a sibling group into your home? Are you able to adopt a child who speaks English as a second language (or not at all)? Most importantly, are you able to provide a permanent home for a child or children, committed to loving them and parenting them through both joys and challenges? While these questions require a lot of thought and perhaps some honest conversation with your spouse, don’t discount your ability to be a great mom or dad. If you are willing and able to put forth the time and effort, parenting one or more of these children can bring so much fulfillment to your life.

In order to be a helpful and effective parent, do your research and remember that it’s okay to ask for help and support anytime you need it. The agency that you are working with should be happy to answer any questions you may have. While the following list isn’t comprehensive, it will cover several types of special needs and some of the care that may be required.

 – Older Children & Teens

When considering adoption, many families think about babies. However, there is an ever-growing demand to find homes for older children and teenagers. The average age of a child in foster care is about 8. These children often have longer wait times to be adopted. They may have moved several times over the course of their lives. No matter a person’s age, it is never too late to become a member of a family. Many teenagers age out of foster care every day. Without a caring family and a stable home life, these teens are at high risk for becoming homeless, committing crimes, dealing with mental illness, or even considering suicide. Many older children and teens who have been adopted say that their families are their saving grace. All children deserve a family, regardless of age. Just because you haven’t been a part of a child’s life in the past does not mean that you can’t have a great impact on their lives in the present and the future. Adopting an older child may be the best thing that has ever happened to them (and to you).

 – Children of Different Races or Ethnicities

It seems a bit ridiculous (and to some, even offensive) that children of certain races and ethnicities may be considered for “special needs” adoptions. Perhaps a better way of looking at the term is that these children have special adoption placement needs due to the time they often spend waiting for families.

A majority of children in foster care are white, black, or Hispanic. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, African American children account for 23 percent of children in care. Hispanic children account for another 21 percent. Native American children comprise only 2 percent of children in the foster care system but have very specific rules and cultural considerations regarding their adoption placements.

Many adopting parents have absolutely no preference on the race or ethnicity of a child. They are happy to provide a loving home for any child, even if they have a different cultural background. However, it is extremely important that these children keep a connection with their culture and heritage. They are already dealing with the loss of their biological family and may not want to feel that they are losing their racial or cultural identity as well.

If you are considering adopting a child whose race or ethnicity differs from your own, make sure that your child has the ability to celebrate their culture by continuing traditions, seeking out cultural events often, and encouraging open and honest discussions about racial diversity. It is important that your child has mentors and role models of many races, including their own. As difficult and uncomfortable as it may be, it is also important to learn about and teach your child about dealing with racism. We dream of a world where racism does not exist, but the sad truth is that it remains a part of our society’s downfall. It is important to learn about any other needs your child may have, such as specific skin care, hair care, or health care needs that may be different from your own.

 – Children With Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are common among children, and adopted children are no different. Some learning disabilities don’t cause many issues at all, while others can cause a child to struggle with school work and home life. Common learning disabilities such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may make it difficult for children to focus on tasks or complete their work in a timely manner. Learning disabilities can be compounded by other factors pertaining to the adoption.

According to a study by the Barker Foundation, there is a high incidence of learning disabilities amongst adopted children. In this study of 500 children, 30 percent had some type of learning disability or AD/HD. This may be due to a myriad of factors including pre-adoption history (such as prenatal care, genetics, and trauma history), anxiety, insecurity, and attachment issues. Chronic stress and trauma have negative effects on the brain, which can cause difficulty with memory.

If your child is dealing with a learning disability, there are many resources available to help you. Your child’s pediatrician, psychologist, and school employees can all be wonderful advocates for your child’s success. With patience, encouragement, and communication, children with learning disabilities can lead very successful lives. Every child has a unique style of learning, and each child (regardless of academic ability or struggles) has incredible potential.

 – Sibling Groups

Approximately two-thirds of children in the foster care system have at least one sibling who is also in care. In an ideal world, these children would be kept together and adopted by a single family. Unfortunately, not every family can provide a home for multiple children and they end up being separated. This can be incredibly traumatic for children who have already lost their parents.

If you are able to adopt a sibling group, you can positively impact the lives of these children more than you know. When siblings are placed together, they face lower rates of failed placements and move to new homes less often. Their emotional well-being is better. They have a greater sense of security and adjust much easier when faced with new families, homes, and communities.

 – Children With Trauma Histories

Trauma isn’t easy for anyone, and for children, it can be especially difficult. All children in foster care have experienced trauma. This trauma occurs when they have entered the foster care system due to being removed from their home and from their biological parents/families. They may have to leave all that they have ever known: their school, their friends, their community. They are entering a strange and scary new situation and they are faced with a great deal of uncertainty. Beyond this type of trauma, some children have dealt with severe abuse or neglect and have experienced events that interfere with their ability to cope with everyday life.

Approximately 1 in 4 children in foster care will show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to SAFY. This can greatly affect their ability to build relationships. They may struggle with trusting adults and forming bonds. Some children lash out and show disruptive or inappropriate behavior. They may even become unruly and aggressive.

When providing a home for a child who has undergone any form of trauma, patience is key. Do not take the child’s behavior personally. Remember that it is the product of the child’s previous experiences and often has no reflection upon you as a parent. You may be able to help your child by setting healthy boundaries and being consistent with appropriate discipline. They may or may not want to talk about their trauma. If they feel that they can open up to you, practice active listening and have an open mind. Help them find solutions for the problems they encounter and remind them that you are always there to lend a hand.

Your pediatrician and a child psychologist can be great members of your care team. Whether your child is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness/psychological concern, professionals are well trained in these areas and could help you navigate many areas of your child’s healing process. In addition, a good support system for yourself can be helpful. Reach out to other parents who are raising children with trauma histories. Sharing stories and ideas may help you to find a fresh perspective and to know that others are dealing with similar situations.

 – Children With Developmental Disabilities, Chronic Disease, or Physical Limitations

Sometimes disabilities take a more serious form. These may be somewhat common amongst older children waiting to be adopted.

Developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder can vary widely. Some children with autism are incredibly high functioning, while others may struggle in areas of speech, connection, and non-verbal communication. They may also exhibit repetitive behaviors or become fixated on certain items/topics. Studies are still being done on autism and why it occurs. Educators, pediatricians, therapists, and parents of autistic children can all be helpful as you navigate this largely varied disorder.

Down syndrome is another common disability. Occurring in approximately 1 of 700 live births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Down syndrome occurs when there is an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. This causes unique physical features and often some form of intellectual disability. In some cases, Down syndrome causes more severe medical issues with the heart, vision, and/or hearing. Many individuals with Down syndrome grow to lead successful and mostly independent lives, however, they will need appropriate lifelong medical care.

[Cerebral palsy] is the most common motor disability in childhood,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It affects an individual’s ability to maintain balance, posture, and can greatly restrict their movements. Some people with cerebral palsy have only minor motor control issues (such as walking with a limp), however, some cases are very severe—causing an inability to walk or control muscle movements.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a completely preventable, yet unfortunate reality for many children. Prenatal exposure to unhealthy substances can greatly impact a child’s health and well-being. This syndrome is characterized by facial abnormalities, impaired growth, and central nervous system dysfunction, according to Verywell Health. This condition is permanent and cannot be cured. Developmental and speech delays, lower IQ, and other abnormalities may occur as a result of the mother’s drinking during pregnancy. While it is not known exactly how much alcohol it takes to cause harm to an unborn child, medical professionals in the United States like to err on the side of caution and advise against consuming alcohol at any time during pregnancy. In cases of continued alcohol and substance abuse, babies can be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and may face withdrawal symptoms at birth. Opiates cause withdrawal symptoms in over half of babies with prenatal exposure, according to the Standford Children’s Health website. In addition to poor growth and early delivery, babies delivered to mothers who have abused drugs and alcohol may suffer from withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, sleep problems, high pitched crying, irritability, tense muscle tone, seizures, hyperactive reflexes, and unstable body temperature. They may also have problems with feeding and staying hydrated due to vomiting and/or diarrhea. These babies may need medication to help them safely withdraw from the substance they are addicted to. When adopting a baby who has experienced prenatal substance abuse, you may have to offer a higher calorie diet and spend an extra amount of time comforting and swaddling your baby.

There are a wide variety of other disorders, diseases, and syndromes that may affect a child’s physical or intellectual ability. If you are adopting a child with these types of needs, it is important to do as much research as you can so that you can effectively care for them. Never be afraid to ask for help. Financial, medical, and social support is available and recommended.

You Are A Special Parent

While the term “special needs” may seem intimidating at first, the reality may be much less scary than it sounds. All children deserve a loving family and a permanent home regardless of age, race, gender, physical ability, or intellectual development. If you have a loving heart, a giving nature, and determination, you may make an amazing parent. So many children are patiently waiting to be adopted. You can be the one who makes a difference in their lives. We are all special in some way, and as humans, we all have unique needs. Consider adopting a child with special needs. It may be the best decision you’ll ever make.

Leslie Bolin is a happily married mama of 3 amazing kids. She is also the birth mother to an adult son. She is just beginning the reunion process, which makes her nervous and excited at the same time. Leslie enjoys educating others about adoption and has done her fair share of outreach, writing, and public speaking on the subject. She has an Associate of Arts degree in Social Work and plans to continue her education. Leslie enjoys spending time with her family, finding peace in the beauty of nature, and laughing as much as possible. She believes that smiling is contagious and that music is good for the soul. She is a firm believer that even the most difficult moments can be turned into something beautiful when we use our stories to help others.