Adopting a Special Needs Child: Special Needs Adoption

Making the decision to adopt a child with special needs can change your life. There are steps you can take to start preparing yourself and your household if you’re considering adopting a special-needs child.

You can make an informed choice, successfully navigate the application and evaluation processes, and be ready to provide your child with a secure and stable home by doing your homework and preparing yourself beforehand.

Adopting a child with special needs is typically done through the foster care system. Starting out as a foster parent before an adoption is a wonderful way to get familiar with what will be required of you and will help you decide if adopting a special needs child is the right fit for you and your family.

Small Girl with Downs Syndrome

What Is Special Needs Adoption?

A special-needs adoption is the adoption of a child who has been diagnosed with physical, emotional, or mental challenges. A child with special needs is likely to have a more difficult time being adopted, so there are often state incentives to help a special-needs child be adopted.

The phrase “special needs” in foster care has a broad definition and may vary from state to state. Children with special needs:

  • May often be older than 7 years old, which is the average age for adoption.
  • Are susceptible to future learning, emotional, behavioral, or physical impairments.
  • Have unique healthcare requirements, which might include behavioral, physical, or mental difficulties.
  • Could have been exposed to alcohol or drugs throughout pregnancy.

Countrywide, foster care is in critical need of supportive parents, but foster homes for children with special needs are especially needed.

Numerous foster children have a history of abuse or neglect, mental or physical health concerns, or both. Foster care is intended to be a temporary placement, but since some children are older or are in foster care with their siblings, they may stay there for a considerable amount of time.

These children might suffer from or be at risk for:

  • Behavioral problems
  • Hereditary or physiological risks brought on by parental drug use or mental illness
  • Psychological distress
  • Critical health conditions

Caregiving for these youngsters may demand far more dedication than caring for a healthy, otherwise typical growing child.

Foster parents must be prepared to speak up for the needs of the child, which includes being knowledgeable about medical conditions and treatments, attending meetings and therapy sessions, and collaborating with the educational system.

The child’s biological relatives must also be frequently involved. Having a network of family, friends, and local resources to lean on may be very beneficial for foster parents.

Adoption can be very expensive, but there are ways to adopt more affordably, providing you have an open mind.

The Benefits of Special-Needs Adoption

There are several benefits of adopting a special needs child. Special needs adoption can provide the following benefits:

  • You will be helping a child who desperately needs you.
  • The strength required to muddle through the day-to-day rigor will make you stronger.
  • Suddenly you will appreciate the little things.
  • Many states provide adoption subsidies to help cover the costs of adopting a child with special needs.
  • You can apply to be a foster parent and foster a child with special needs before ever adopting to prevent blindly committing without first knowing what you’re getting yourself into.

There’s no question that there are challenges when it comes to adopting a child with special needs. Yet the benefits can far outweigh the challenges.

The Challenges of Special-Needs Adoption

As with anything in life, adopting a special-needs child will have its challenges.

  • You will need to learn how to meet their physical and emotional needs.
  • You will feel overwhelmed at times.
  • You will need help.
  • You will need a break.
  • You will feel isolated and alone at times.

The benefits far outweigh the challenges. However, it is recommended that you try caring for a special-needs child through foster care before making the final decision to adopt.

States have programs to help foster parents become educated in caring for their special-needs children as well as a respite care system to offer temporary relief when a foster parent desperately needs a break.

What if you take depression medication? Can you still adopt? Will a mental health issue prevent you from adopting?

Respite Care for Foster Parents

 Respite is a short-term child care service or emergency assistance for a family or primary caregiver (similar to having a babysitter but requires more training). However, any child in the welfare system may qualify for respite care, which is typically associated with children who have impairments.

The continuum of foster care and adoption services that is successful includes respite care. Children with impairments in the welfare system benefit from respite care because it keeps the caregivers from being worn out and quitting altogether.

The welfare system allows families with special needs children to request free or discounted respite care, but many of these families struggle to get access to it.

Common Medical Conditions in Children with Special Needs:

Children in foster care often suffer from a variety of medical conditions. Understanding some of the ailments that a child may be facing will help you to understand possible requirements for their care.

Some of the possible medical ailments are below:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

One of the most prevalent mental illnesses impacting youngsters is ADHD. The inability to maintain attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are signs of ADHD.

The effects of ADHD are known to affect a person in many areas of their life, including academic and professional success, interpersonal connections, and everyday functioning.

ADHD is regarded as a chronic and disabling illness. When left untreated, ADHD in children can result in low self-esteem and poor social skills.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children in foster care are three times more likely to develop attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than children who are not in foster care.

The CDC’s researchers looked at Medicaid outpatient and prescription medication claims from several states in 2011.

In comparison to children enrolled in Medicaid, more than 1 in 4 foster children between the ages of 2 and 17 had an ADHD diagnosis, according to the study.

Additionally, they discovered that compared to around one-third of children with ADHD in Medicaid, nearly half of children with ADHD in foster care also had a second condition, such as oppositional defiant disorder, depression, or anxiety.

However, there is a positive trend in treating ADHD in foster children. Although they were more likely to obtain psychological therapy, they were just as likely as Medicaid-eligible children to be given ADHD medication. In 2011, around three out of every four foster kids with ADHD got some kind of therapy.


Autism is a developmental disorder that has an impact on a person’s capacity to comprehend, interpret the environment, move, communicate, and interact with others. According to estimates, one in 59 people has autism.

All autistic persons share the fact that they view the world differently and may act differently than others, even though no two autistic people are alike.

A chronic impairment affects around half of the children in foster care. Particularly among autistic children, foster care placement is 2.4 times more prevalent than it is for neurotypical peers.

Bipolar Disorder

Major depressive and manic episodes are both a part of bipolar illness. The diagnosis of adult bipolar illness serves as the foundation for the diagnostic manual utilized by mental health providers. 

Within the realm of children’s mental health, bipolar illness has grown to be a contentious topic. Regarding the existence of bipolar disorder, there is little debate. The difference between the symptoms of bipolar illness in children and adults is the subject of debate.

Cerebral Palsy

A group of conditions known as cerebral palsy impairs posture, coordination, muscle tone, and bodily motions. It is brought on by brain injury that takes place either before, during, or shortly after a child is born.

Asphyxiation, or a lack of oxygen to the baby’s or fetus’s brain, is the most frequent cause of brain injury that results in cerebral palsy.

Asphyxia can be brought on by a variety of factors, including issues with the umbilical cord or the mother’s low blood pressure.

Many additional conditions, including prenatal illnesses or extended labor, either directly cause brain injury or are thought to be risk factors for it.

Any child’s adoption or foster care is a selfless act of love. Taking on a child with special needs, such as one who has cerebral palsy, increases the difficulty of what would already be a challenging endeavor.

However, there may be significant rewards, and for many adoptive parents, loving and nurturing a child with this disease is beautiful.

Will a medical condition make you ineligible to adopt a child? We find out.

Cleft Lip Palate

Openings or cracks in the upper lip, the palate, or both are known as cleft lip and cleft palate. When the growing facial tissues of an unborn infant don’t completely shut, cleft lip and cleft palate occur.

Among the most prevalent birth abnormalities are cleft lip and cleft palate. Although they most frequently manifest as solitary birth abnormalities, they are also linked to a variety of inherited genetic diseases or syndromes.

Babies with unrepaired cleft lip and palate may require the use of special feeding bottles that plug the mouth’s openings to stop milk or formula from spilling into the baby’s mouth or nose.

Babies will require more time to eat and will need to be held while drinking from a bottle. They might also need to eat more frequently and in smaller amounts.

Children with unrepaired clefts in institutional settings may have low body weight as a result.

Even after surgery, children with cleft lip and palate may have trouble speaking effectively or their speech may sound “nasally”.

Additionally, children may be more likely to experience recurrent middle ear infections and develop dental cavities.

For the afflicted parts of the mouth, nose, and face to get proper care during treatment for children with cleft lip and palate, frequent consultations from different specialists may likely be required.

For instance, a child could require the services of a nutritionist, speech therapist, dentist, orthodontist, and plastic surgeon. 

Children born with cleft lip and palate generally lead healthy lives.  

Down Syndrome

The most frequent chromosomal disorder identified in the US is down syndrome. It happens when a chromosome has an extra copy present at the moment of conception.

Children with Down syndrome typically have reduced muscular tone, unusual facial traits, and cerebral impairments.

Nearly 60% of Down syndrome babies are born with a cardiac defect. Additionally, they might have lifelong gastrointestinal, visual, hearing, and skin problems.

Your confidence in raising a child with Down syndrome will increase as you get more experience with the Down syndrome community. The following are advised to become more educated:

  • Join a local Down syndrome parent group. Visit the Global Down Syndrome Foundation website to find a group in your area.
  • Attend any courses and programs on subjects like feeding, health problems, and treatments that are being presented.
  • Volunteer to get the experience you’ll need to raise a child with Down syndrome. 

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

A person who was exposed to alcohol before birth may experience a series of illnesses known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Physical issues, behavioral issues, and learning issues can all be a result of these impacts. A person with FASD frequently struggles with a variety of these issues.

According to a recent assessment of prior studies, fetal alcohol syndrome and other physical, mental, and behavioral issues due to alcohol exposure before birth occur often among children adopted from orphanages or in foster care.

Researchers discovered that the prevalence of alcohol-related issues among those children was nine to sixty times greater than it was in the general population. 

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

Many children in the foster care system or who were adopted as an older child suffer from reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Children who have experienced extreme neglect are more likely to have RAD, preventing them from developing strong, meaningful relationships with caregivers before the age of five.

They lack the ability to respond correctly to a range of social interactions or circumstances, such as the love and affection of their new caretakers or other trustworthy adults since their emotional needs are not being satisfied.

Symptoms of RAD may include:

  • Unfounded shyness, irritation, melancholy, or dread
  • Not seeking comfort
  • Refusing to acknowledge comfort when it is provided
  • Keeping a tight eye on others but avoiding direct social connection
  • Not seeking comfort
  • Refusing to acknowledge comfort when it is provided
  • A depressed and listless demeanor
  • When picked up, the failure to communicate
  • Refusal to request assistance or help

Additionally, children with RAD may display signs of aggression, violent outbursts, rebellious replies to instructions and directives, or improper social interactions.

Spina Bifida

The spinal column starts off as a flat plane throughout its early development. It starts to coil during the first month of pregnancy and finally closes into a tube form. When a child has spina bifida, this means the tube did not completely seal.

There is no known cause for spina bifida. However, factors including heredity, high fevers, and certain drugs could also be at play. Neural tube problems might also occur if a pregnant woman doesn’t get enough folic acid.

There are three types of spina bifida:

The least severe kind of spina bifida is called occulta, and it involves a vertebral hole without a spinal cord or meningeal protrusion.

Many individuals are unaware that they possess this. A significant mold, hair patch, or deep indentation on the skin might be present along the spine.

Meningocele: The spinal cord will have grown properly, but the baby is born with a sac sticking out of the back via a hole in the vertebrae.

Early surgery is crucial because if the sac ruptures, infections and nerve damage might result. Once the back is closed, this type of spina bifida frequently doesn’t cause any issues.

The most prevalent and dangerous variant of spina bifida is myelomeningocele (meningomyelocele). Tissue, spinal fluid, nerves, and a portion of the spinal cord will all be present in the projecting sac on the back.

The spinal cord might be damaged or malformed. Below the injured vertebrae, there is usually some degree of paralysis and numbness. Depending on the degree of paralysis, children can require a walker or wheelchair.

Ever wonder what would disqualify you from being allowed to adopt a child? Visit here for more information.

Assistance for Adopting a Special-Needs Child

Adoption support services are available to parents who are considering or are currently adopting a child from foster care (also known as adoption support).

Programs for adoption aid are created to assist parents in providing for the needs of the children they adopt from foster care.

Depending on the child’s history, they may be eligible for state or federal adoption aid.

Each state has its own program to help support the children that were or will be adopted from that state.

Generally, the guidelines and benefits of the adoption subsidy are based on where the child is or was adopted from, not where the family lives. 

To learn the specific adoption support and subsidies in the state you are adopting from, visit NACAC and click on your state for more details.

What to Consider for a Special-Needs Adoption

It is preferable for an adoptive parent to work with a certified public or private adoption agency when adopting a child with special needs.

Public organizations frequently have greater availability of children with special needs and more lenient qualifying standards.

With private agencies, placement might take longer, and not all of them have expertise in placing children with special needs.

Many state government agencies may offer such adoptions at no cost to the parents, but commercial organizations may charge anything from nothing to tens of thousands of dollars.

One should confirm that the private agency is licensed and a nonprofit.

Ask Yourself Questions to Evaluate Your Special-Needs Adoption Readiness

  • What impairments are we equipped to manage?
  • What sort of physical and/or emotional obstacles can we handle?
  • Do we have the means to care for a new child, especially one who has special needs?
  • Do all of the child’s physical and mental problems, pre-existing disorders, and necessary therapies fall within the scope of our insurance policy?
  • Does our insurance policy give sufficient coverage for the required medical professionals?
  • Will we be able to locate a physician that is willing and qualified to offer the degree of care the child may need?
  • Will the child’s educational needs be met by our school district?
  • Have we had a conversation with a parent of a child who has a comparable ailment to help us get ready for the challenges ahead?
  • Have we found resources that can empower us with the instruction required to assist us in supporting a child with special needs?
  • What age range, family history, and ethnicity would be appropriate for our circumstances?
  • Will we support the adopted child’s efforts to stay in touch with his or her biological family?

Final Thoughts

Rehoming, a troubling practice when parents secretly arrange for a second placement of an adopted child after the original adoptive placement fails, has recently become popular.

Rehoming is not only contradictory to the idea that adoption is a lifelong placement, but is also clearly highly harmful to the child and may result in legal issues if adoptive parents place a child in another family without first arranging for a suitable placement through an agency.

Even among families with the greatest of intentions, adoption failures (also known as “disruptions”) can happen, but with careful preparation, background study on the child, and a realistic assessment before adoption, this risk can be greatly reduced.


Trina Greenfield - Adoption Author

About the Author:
Trina Greenfield is passionate about providing information to those considering growing their family. Trina does not run an adoption agency. Her website is strictly information-based, so she is able to provide unbiased, credible information that she hopes will help guide those along their journey.