Are you considering becoming an adoptive parent to a child who has special needs? That’s wonderful! Adopting a child with special needs will undoubtedly come with many rewards. However, there are also unique challenges that come along with caring for a child with special needs. You should ask yourself these questions if you are considering adopting a child who has special needs.
In the context of adoption, “special needs” doesn’t only refer to a child who has a physical, emotional, or mental health condition; it also refers to factors that can make it more difficult to place a child including age, race, ethnicity, or sibling groups. However, for the purpose of this article, “special needs” indicates a child who has a physical, emotional, or mental health condition or disability. In this article, “special needs” also applies to children who have been neglected or abused.
Why Do I Want to Adopt a Child Who Has Special Needs?
You’re probably thinking the answer is obvious: you want to be a parent. But let me ask you a couple of important questions.
Are you adopting a child because you cannot conceive one on your own? If you can’t conceive your own biological child, adopting is a wonderful way to become a parent and give a child the love and care he needs. Before you adopt a child, though, it’s essential that you grieve the loss of not being able to conceive your own biological child. You don’t want your child who was adopted to feel like he is a second choice or to think that you see him as less than a biological child. Give your heart a chance to heal before adopting a child so that you can give yourself fully to your adopted child.
What is the state of your relationship with your partner (if you have one)? If your relationship isn’t healthy, adopting a child won’t fix it. You also shouldn’t adopt a child because your partner really wants to. Both of you must be on board with becoming parents for a successful placement in your home.
One thing that may indicate you might be ready to adopt a child with special needs is when your reason for adopting is that you want to be a good parent and provide a child with a wonderful home.
Am I Willing to Adopt a Child Who Has Been Neglected or Abused?
Children who have been mistreated can develop a host of physical, emotional, and behavioral issues. Sometimes, these problems surface right away. Other times, these problems don’t surface for weeks, months, or even years after the mistreatment occurred. The problems a child may experience vary widely and can usually be influenced by several factors including the age of the child at the time of mistreatment, the relationship the child had with the perpetrator, and the frequency, type, duration, and severity of the mistreatment.
Physical Consequences of Maltreatment
Abuse and neglect can result in both immediate and long-term physical problems. Additionally, long-term physical problems from abuse or neglect can appear right away or take weeks, months, or years to show up.
Psychological Consequences of Maltreatment
Children who have been abused or neglected can develop a host of psychological issues as a result. Research has shown that some children who were mistreated are at risk for developing cognitive issues such as learning difficulties, impaired working memory and self-control, and difficulties with paying attention. Children who are abused or neglected may develop attachment disorders, which can result in difficulties with peer, social, and romantic relationships.
Children who were mistreated are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a “mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event” (Mayo Clinic).
Behavioral Consequences of Mistreatment
Children who have been through abuse or neglect may display behavioral issues even after the mistreatment has stopped. Furthermore, kids who have experienced maltreatment may have difficulty trusting people. You may need to be extra patient with a child who has been maltreated. It could take months or years for her to trust you.
Children who have been maltreated are also more likely to participate in sexual risk-taking behavior as they reach adolescence.
What Conditions Can I Handle?
You will need to decide what physical, emotional, behavioral, and mental health conditions you can reasonably handle when you are thinking about adopting a child with special needs. Some common conditions seen in children who have special needs who are available for adoption include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, bipolar disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, autism, cleft lip/palate, spina bifida, reactive attachment disorder, and Down syndrome. Children with special needs who are waiting for adoption can have a variety of other physical, emotional, behavioral, or mental health issues including but not limited to cystic fibrosis, Turner Syndrome, hemophilia, or other blood conditions, congenital heart defects, hearing impairment or deafness, vision problems or blindness, epilepsy, and learning disorders.
Each condition brings its own challenges. You’ll need to decide which challenges you are willing and able to face. For instance, a child with an autism spectrum disorder needs a very structured routine. You’ll need to decide if you can create and follow such a structured routine in your daily life. Depending on the child’s age, speech and occupational therapy, social skills training, and interventions to reduce repetitive behaviors may also be useful for autistic children. You’ll need to decide if you can commit to seeing professionals regularly who can help as well as if you can feasibly implement treatment plans at home.
Down syndrome is another common condition. Down syndrome is a genetic condition in which a person experiences physical, language, and intellectual development delays. Behavior, mental abilities, and physical development vary widely among children with Down syndrome. If you adopt a child with Down syndrome, you’ll be working with a team of professionals such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, pediatricians, social workers, and special educators to provide the best opportunities for the child to develop physically, emotionally, and intellectually to the best of her or his ability.
Most adoption agencies will provide a list of conditions you can say yes or no to. Do some research on each condition before you decide if you’ll be able to parent a child with a specific condition. You need to be honest with yourself and the adoption agency about which special needs you are able to handle. Don’t feel bad about saying no to specific conditions.
Will I Need to Make Accommodations to My Home?
Some children with special needs might need accommodations made to the home for them. For instance, a child who uses a wheelchair may need you to build a ramp for him to be able to get into your home. He may also need handrails in the bathroom to safely transfer to the toilet.
Blind children may need special lighting, requiring the installation of rheostat controls (dimmer light switches) on light switches. You may need to use baby gates to block off stairways initially. You’ll also need to be mindful of trip hazards and be diligent about keeping objects off the floor. If the child has some vision, you may need to purchase lamps, dishes, and rugs that are color-contrasting.
What Will Life Be Like with a Child Who Has Special Needs?
It’s one thing to do some research on physical, emotional, and mental health conditions, but knowing the facts about a condition is very different than being prepared for living with a child with that condition.
To get a much clearer idea on what life will be like with a child with a specific condition, seek out parents who have children with the condition. For instance, if you’re interested in adopting a child with autism, seek out parents who have autistic children. There are support groups online for parents who have children with special needs. Once you’ve found a group, you can ask parents questions about what it’s like to live with an autistic child. People in the group can share both the joys and the challenges you’ll face if you choose to adopt a child with autism. You may never be fully prepared for your adopted child’s special needs, but learning as much as you can from other parents will help you prepare yourself the best you possibly can.
What Will My Insurance Cover?
Talk to your insurance company about your situation. Typically, most insurance companies will begin covering your child who was adopted the day you adopt her (*but again, check with your insurance company for specific details). Also, be sure to ask your insurance company if they will cover any preexisting conditions.
If your insurance company won’t cover preexisting conditions, some states have supplemental medical insurance plans available. Other times, children with special needs qualify for Medicare. Talk with your adoption agency about resources available in your area.
Do I Have Enough Support from Family and Friends?
Do you have family and friends who can provide you with support when you need it? Taking care of a child with special needs can be frustrating, disheartening, and challenging at times. While you may experience love and joy as soon as you bring your adopted child home, this isn’t always the case. Adjusting to life with a child with special needs can be overwhelming. If you adopt a child who has been mistreated or an older child who has had multiple caregivers, it could take months or years to build a bond and for the child to trust you.
If your family and friends are supportive, reach out to them when you’re feeling overwhelmed. If you don’t have a good support network, other adoptive parents are a fantastic support system.
Seeking support from other adoptive parents is invaluable. Talking to other adoptive parents of kids who have special needs before you adopt can give you a much better idea of what it will be like caring for a child with special needs. After you’ve adopted, you can seek advice and support from other adoptive parents. Oftentimes, adoptive parents can offer one another new perspectives and ideas on how to handle challenging situations.
There are many support groups online for adoptive parents to connect with one another. You may also have in-person support groups for adoptive parents in your area. Ask your adoption agency for more information.
Can I Afford It?
This is a question prospective adoptive parents need to ask themselves. Federal subsidies may help offset the costs of the adoption itself in some cases. The government may also provide a monthly payment to help you cover the child’s needs. However, the financial support won’t cover all the costs of raising a child, so it’s important for you to evaluate whether you can provide for a child with special needs financially.
How Will I Take Care of Myself?
You need to make sure that you take care of yourself as well. If you’re unwell, you won’t be able to provide the care your child requires.
Take care of yourself physically. Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Eat a healthy diet. Exercise regularly. Not only does exercise help you stay healthy, it also helps relieve stress, decrease depression, and gives you a break. Schedule regular checkups with your physician to help you stay healthy.
Try to set aside a little time every day to do something for yourself too. This may be challenging when you’re busy taking care of a child with special needs, but it’s important for your mental wellbeing. Even if it’s only 15 minutes a day, you need some time for yourself. During this time, do something you enjoy to help relieve stress. Go for a walk, read a book, take a bubble bath, watch your favorite television show, work on a puzzle, spend time with your pet, or meditate.
It’s important to stay socially connected when you are raising a child with special needs as well. Plan to get together with loved ones on a regular basis. Giving yourself a night off is not selfish. If you burn out, you cannot effectively care for your child who has special needs.
Adopting a child who has special needs is a big decision, and there are many questions you need to ask yourself before doing so. Educating yourself about specific special needs, making appropriate accommodations to your home, and ensuring you can reasonably provide for a child with special needs are all important steps to take before you adopt a child who has special needs. With diligence, determination, and support from others, you can provide a child who has special needs with the loving home she or he deserves.