Why You Should Consider Adopting a Child with Special Needs

The Boy, Lusaka, Zambia

Nathaniel was born in 2007 and was diagnosed with hydrocephalus. He has an ETV (endoscopic third ventriculostomy) shunt for aqueductal stenosis. His left side is weak and he is learning to walk. He is a Special Needs Child. He is our son.

If you are considering adoption or are waiting for a referral for a healthy infant or child, have you considered adopting an older child or a child with special needs? Without a doubt, all children eligible for adoption may have special needs to some degree, whether physical, emotional, or otherwise.  However, for the sake of clarity, I am defining special needs based on physical and/or intellectual disabilities.

Consider the following issues, based upon a number of journal articles and resources that are listed for references at the end of this post:

– Have you considered your motivation for adoption? Do you want to give a needy child a home or are you looking for the perfect child to fit into your desires and family?

– Have you considered that many agencies and countries have queues of a year or longer for those wishing to adopt a healthy infant?  That means that families are waiting in line to adopt a child that has not yet been born (or perhaps even conceived).  Is this truly a vulnerable child if families are waiting in line for years to adopt him/her and he/she is not yet born?

– Have you considered that although all children available for adoption are vulnerable to some extent, some children are more vulnerable than others? Children who are older than 5 years or who have special needs are the most vulnerable because they are the least likely to be adopted and are often unlikely to receive the care they need to function at their full capacity.

– Have you considered what adopting a special needs child would look like for your family? It may be similar to adopting a typical “healthy” child but involve some physical or occupational therapy or other special education, depending upon the disability.  For some disabilities, the extra care required is minimal.

– Have you considered that by law, insurance companies can’t refuse coverage for a child with a prior health condition if they are adopted?  You may have to budget some extra money so that you will meet your insurance deductible every year or change plans to one that better fits your family. However major operations and/or chronic care is covered to a large extent. Some families have also asked hospitals and doctors to do surgeries for free or at discounted rates.

The following are some special needs conditions of children that you may consider adopting and the possible medical or therapy interventions required:

  • Albinism – Keep the child shielded from the sun with hats and sunblock. Higher risk of skin cancer but may be otherwise typically developing.
  • Autism or other sensory deficit disorder – physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech language therapy, special education
  • Birth marks – may have surgery, minor medical care required
  • Cleft lip/palate – Easily surgically correctable, speech language therapy
  • Club foot – Easily surgically correctable, physical therapy
  • Down Syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities – physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech language therapy, special education
  • HIV Positive – a chronic condition that isn’t a death sentence anymore – medications keep the viral load low and prevent it from going into AIDS.  May have specialty clinics in metropolitan areas.
  • Neurological disorders (cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, spina bifida, etc.) – surgery, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech language therapy, special education
  • Etc.

Each child’s condition is unique. Often times, with love, care, good health care and therapy, a child will thrive once they are placed in an adoptive family. Do your research about the child’s condition and find out as much as possible about the child’s current state of health. Find other adoptive families in your community or on the web who have also adopted a child with the same condition.

When we first considered adopting a child with special needs, I loved looking at Reece’s Rainbow, an organization advocating for adoption of children with Down Syndrome. They also have a large number of children with other disabilities and it gives a good sense of what types of special needs children need families.

This is a journey that we know personally as we initially set out to adopt a healthy newborn. As we learned more about the world of adoption and the children that were the most in need of families, we were convicted to adopt a five-year old boy with hydrocephalus. Both Ben and I don’t view Nathaniel as having special needs at all anymore. However, it does mean we spend more time at the doctor’s office, doing physical therapy, and helping him to learn some basics that he’s still catching up on. He’s our son and we wouldn’t trade him for the world.


Reece’s Rainbow

Sister Haiti Mama Uganda Blog – “New Faces of International Adoption”

Adoption Advocates International – adoption agency specializing in children least likely to be adopted (those older, with special needs, and in sibling groups). Based in Port Angeles, Washington and working domestically through the foster care system and in various international countries.


Corbett, S. (2002, June 16). Where do babies come from? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/16/magazine/where-do-babies-come-from.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

Graff, E. J. (2008, November 1). The lie we love. Foreign Policy, 58-65. Retrieved from http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2008/10/15/the_lie_we_love

Graff, E. J. (2010, September 12). Anatomy of an adoption crisis. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/09/07/anatomy_of_an_adoption_crisis

Graff, E. J. (2010, Summer). The baby business. Democracy: a Journal of Ideas. Retrieved from http://www.democracyjournal.org/17/6757.php?page=all

Solin, D. M. (2005). Child laundering: how the intercountry adoption system legitimizes and incentivizes the practices of buying, trafficking, kidnapping, and stealing children. The Wayne Law Review, 52, 113-200. Retrieved from http://works.bepress.com/david_smolin/1/

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