Does Older Child Adoption Equal Special Needs?

All too often, when people new to adoption hear the term ‘special needs,’ they think of a child needing surgeries, therapies, and intensive parental care. It can be a scary term. So if I were to then assert that adopting any older child (and for our purposes here, that will be any child out of infancy), should be considered a “special needs adoption,” most people would likely disagree immediately. It would appear that the facts would not support my statement. Not all children adopted after babyhood are medically complex children. Yet I do believe that all older child adoption should be considered special needs, though we need a definition of special needs that is a bit broader.

“Special needs” should merely be a descriptive term for someone who needs a little more grace and little more time to reach their very best. Like many things, the idea of special needs is a spectrum. On one end, you do have the medically complex children, requiring extensive medical treatment and who will probably always need outside support. On the other end are apparently healthy children who, because of a change in circumstance or past trauma or some combination, need emotional support to flourish. I do not believe there is a case where an older child has been adopted (domestically or internationally) and has fit seamlessly into the new family without at least temporary accommodation made during the transition. The emotional challenges of fitting into and navigating a new family are too great.

What are some ways that older adoptees will be challenged?

Some people don’t like the term “special needs,” because it seems to put a stigma onto adoptees, as if being an adoptee means there is something wrong with you.  Perhaps we do need a different term, one that gives us permission to cut our new (and sometimes not-so-new) children a little slack. A term that reminds us of the enormous task that we have asked our children to undertake. A term that allows us and our children the time and room to adjust to each other and fall in love. I don’t know what that term would be, but if we can find it, I would suggest using it in a broader context. Because, if you go back and read my definition, couldn’t we all qualify as special needs? All of us struggle with one thing or another. Some of those struggles are significant and touch every aspect of our lives, and others are smaller irritations that only bother us occasionally. If raising five special needs children has taught me anything, it is that none of us is perfect. We can all use special consideration every now and then. We can all use a little extra space and time to get where we are going. We can all use a whole lot of grace.