Saturday, January 28, 2012

On Special Needs/Waiting Child Adoption

         I’ve been thinking about special needs adoption more lately, likely because of some comments I’ve heard in recent days:

          “I could never do that, it takes very special people.”

          “My husband wouldn’t adopt a child with a difference.” 

And then another, “You just have to figure out what you can handle.”

          Here is what I want to share, please hear me: all children have special needs, whether bio or adopted, whether visible or invisible.  Each child is born with giftings that deserve to be nurtured and issues they will need someone to help them with. The information in a child’s file will give clues as to who they will be, but much is indefinable and won’t be in that chart, and some of what is in the chart may be incomplete or inaccurate, despite the best efforts of an agency. Special needs may crop up later – as they may with any child – and so will many wonderful aspects of the child’s personality as they blossom and grow.

          We entered into waiting child adoption with the realization that any of our three bio children could have been born with a disability, and we would have loved them just the same. Still, we researched extensively which issues we felt comfortable with, and found ourselves open to more than we might originally have considered. We felt strongly led by God to pursue this course and each of our children, and yet we knew we had a responsibility to educate and prepare ourselves. We researched extensively about adoption issues – attachment disorder, adopting toddlers and preschoolers, attachment parenting – and spent hours talking to and corresponding with experienced adoptive parents.

          When we adopted our first waiting child, the Musician, we were cautious, and took his file to an international adoption specialist. He was a preemie who’d been diagnosed with a scary-sounding special need that, had it occurred with other anomolies, could have caused blindness, seizures and serious developmental delay. Despite the fact that at 18 months he was on target developmentally, had no other issues and was in good health, the doctor we visited was bleak and painted a worse-case scenario, as perhaps was her job.

We took the file home, prayed, and by day’s end, we knew the Musician was our son. We knew the doctor could be right, and we knew we needed to be prepared for our son to have difficulties. Yet we knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was our child. We prepared mentally for him to have developmental or attachment issues, studied the best ways to help him, and read and reread ToddlerAdoption: The Weaver’s Craft, one of the most helpful books I’ve read about adopting toddlers, and one that helped us greatly with his adjustment process. As it happened, our Musician is a natural athlete, a guitarist and singer, a kind and gentle brother whose biggest special need was one you won’t find in files – more on that later.

          We took the same approach when we adopted the Wrestler. His special needs were obvious: missing tibias, malformed little feet, cleft hand and missing fingers. His file stated that he had “almost normal” intelligence. While we were frightened of the unknown, we also knew beyond a shadow that he was our child, and we began preparing. We called our county committee for preschool special education, and learned what we would need to do to have him evaluated for services upon homecoming. We were concerned about attachment because of his multiple placements and surgeries, so we connected with an attachment therapist, watched the videos she sent us, and prepared to parent a delayed, attachment resistant child.

          Instead, we found ourselves parenting a dynamic, wildly intelligent little boy who had “shrunken” emotionally out of fear and perhaps a feeling of being judged for his differences, but who blossomed in a family who loved him. He tested out of all services save physical therapy, which he needed to prepare him to wear prosthetics.

          Our Littlest had a file full of question marks, out of which it was hard to make a clear picture. At three, he presented as withdrawn, nearly silent and delayed. He was also gentle, kind and starving for love, and once home, he began to blossom in ways that were amazing to see. With the help of an awesome speech therapist, encouragement of other adoptive parents and family, and lots of research, we learned to encourage, teach and patiently wait as our little treasure unfolded like a flower finally exposed to sun, and started to become the child God intended him to be all along.

          We learned what we suspected all along: that children are children, regardless of diagnoses, and all deserve a family in which they can thrive. They are more than the words in a file, and yet it paid to give credence to the reports and to be prepared for whatever needs our children might have. There was one other special need, never listed in files, that is perhaps the most important one for adoptive parents to be prepared for, and it was this special need that took the most patience, nurturing and special handling: a broken heart. More on this next time.

     In the meantime, I'd love to hear of others' experiences, if you'd like to share. What has most surprised you about waiting child adoption, and what helped the most, going into it? Your words may help others as much as we were helped by those who went before us.
Giving Thanks, and
Trusting in Him,


  1. Hi Aimee. We have 7 kids. 6 of whom came to our family through adoption and have varying special needs. On the "I could never do that, it takes special people" comment I would like to say that one of the main things that stands out about our family is willingness. We are not really that special, just willing. Willing to accept some unknowns. Willing to love a child for who they are on the day they walk in our door and help them progress to their highest ability, whatever that may be. Willingness to seek professional help when necessary. Willingness to take breaks and rest when needed (this is soooo important to prevent burnout! been there done that...) Willingness to go against the grain, hurt for your child when they hurt and cheer for them when they make gains at their own pace. Although it has not always been easy by any stretch of the imagination, I wouldnt trade our life for anything in the world. Our kids have enriched us, taught us, wore us out, made us happy, made us sad and they complete us....

    1. Rachel, thank you for sharing and putting it all so eloquently. Love you and your beautiful family!

  2. I want to second your comment that absolutely any child can present challenging issues and needs, and sometimes the unforeseen ones are harder to handle than the ones you expected. Our older son, a perfect healthy 6-month-old boy at his adoption, has surprised us with difficult challenges that surfaced only after he entered school. Our younger child, meanwhile, has several congenital medical issues and so far, they are ALL we are dealing with. Nothing hidden has been revealed and I don't expect it to be. With him, what you see is what you get.

    That being said, my best advice is to trust your instincts. Upon reviewing the files of several baby boys with brain abnormalities and projected developmental delays, I felt very uneasy. When my son's file came to us, on the other hand, I knew instantly this was it.

    1. E, it's true, the issues you didn't expect are the ones that can throw you for a loop. We've found the same to be true with bio children, and have kind of come to expect the unexpected! Good advice from a wise mama with beautiful boys.

  3. "Willing to love a child for who they are on the day they walk in our door and help them progress to their highest ability, whatever that may be."

    -- I love this, Rachel.

    I wanted to note, too, that my bio kids would be WIC children, too! For sure! And that is what made us not as scared as we could have been to look at some files.

    One of my kids has a brain abnormality. It's not any big deal in our life. It COULD be, but for years and years, it hasn't been. When people learn of that, they seem to be shocked and saddened for our son, but to us, it really is nothing but a second thought.

    I think I am at the exact point Rachel so elequently said, I'm ready to meet my daughter at the place she is when she walks in this door. I will love her for her pasts and we will work together with what we encounter in her future. Our future. Knowns and unknowns.

  4. That's a good point, Jen, and one we know to be true in our family too, even though their newborn "files" would have been perfect. I hope your beautiful girl is home very, very soon!