Continuing from my last blog post, I wanted to answer some of the common questions and comments regarding adopting a child with special needs.
As I mentioned in How Did You Get A Boy?, while the common perception is that most people adopting from China will get a healthy infant girl, things have changed in China. There are approximately 3000 adoptions from China to the US per year, 90% of which are special needs children. This is because birth defects have risen 70% in China in the last decade. Because people are curious when they hear that Leo is a part of the China special needs program, they often ask–
What’s wrong with him? What is his special need? He looks so healthy!
I do hope that you will avoid asking “What’s wrong with him” in his presence, because although I know you’re asking about his health, it is easy for a child to perceive this in the same negative way as being referred to as unwanted and abandoned. Adoptees often feel that there must have been something wrong with them for their parents to abandon them, and hearing people ask what is wrong with them reinforces that idea.
The term “special needs” can sound scary, which is kind of ironic because it came into use to sound less scary than other words like handicapped or disabled. Special needs is a very broad term, and the children available for adoption have a wide range of special needs, from birth marks to complex heart issues. Sometimes these needs are immediately evident, such as albinism, Down Syndrome, or a missing limb. Other times the needs are not visible.
I don’t mind telling you that Leo has an unrepaired cleft palate, but no cleft lip. This means he has a hole in the roof of his mouth, and so when he’s eating sometimes food will drip out of his nose. He also has been diagnosed with a “malformed left auricle” which is a medical way of saying he has a funny shaped ear (visible in the above picture). We consider these needs to be minor, and they don’t make him unhealthy. I guess our definition of an unhealthy child would be one who needed a lot of medication, or who is in and out of the hospital a lot. To us, kids who are missing a limb, are deaf, or have any number of other special needs are often perfectly healthy. Leo will probably need multiple surgeries over several years for his cleft palate. Assuming there are no undisclosed issues with his ear then we probably won’t do anything about it should work just fine.
Something thing to keep in mind is that some parents prefer not to share their child’s special needs for several reasons. One is privacy because some special needs are of a sensitive nature. Does everyone need to know that little Bobby was born without an imperforate anus or that Suzie had a vaginal fistula repaired? Other diagnoses such as being HIV or Hepatitis B positive can still carry a stigma. Sometimes times the needs are rare or hard to explain and it might be easier for a parent to decline to share than to get caught up in a flurry of follow-up questions about Thalassemia or what it means to lack a corpus collosum, especially if the person asking questions is a random stranger in the grocery store or someone who is a casual acquaintance.
Why did you have to get a special needs child? Weren’t there any healthy ones?
Matt and I were never bothered by the idea of adopting a special needs child. In the dozen years that we’ve been parenting, we’ve had many friends or neighbors who ended up with a child with special needs. We’ve known children with alopecia, hypospadias, cleft palate, or anal atresia. Some of our friends who had infants born healthy later ended up with them getting diagnoses like Autism, diabetes, or even cancer. And you know what? They were all just kids. Cute and adorable, funny, with their own personalities and just as perfect in their own way as “healthy” children. They weren’t scary at all. They needed extra trips to the doctor or therapies, but that doesn’t make them any different from our biological children who have “special needs” that require them to visit the optometrist or orthodontist regularly. I guess what I’m saying is that we have learned that life is short and unpredictable, so if you’re set on waiting for perfection then you’re probably going to be missing out on the fun and beauty of life, which is anything but perfect.
It’s just so great that you would do that! [adopt in general or adopt a child with special needs]
We didn’t adopt because we wanted people to think that we are super-awesome. We don’t want people to look at Leo as a charity project or for him to feel that is why we adopted him. While Leo may have joined our family in a different way from our other children, it doesn’t make him any less a part of the family. As much as we appreciate the kind words, we don’t expect or need people to thank us for adopting him any more than we expect or need people to stop us in the grocery store to say we’re great parents for buying groceries to feed the children. It’s not any more heroic than any other kind of parenting–except maybe for all the paperwork we had to conquer to get him here!