Will Your Adopted Child Have Special Needs?


Will Your Adopted Child Have Special Needs?

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When intervention is necessary

Adoption is a complex process. Meeting your child for the first time can be like standing in the ocean with waves of love, waves of fear, waves of relief, and waves of grief washing over you.

The pressure to do everything right is enormous. With agencies and family members scrutinizing your every move, there’s little space to just be with your child.

And yet, your whole being just wants to bond with your child and pour your love into this new member of your family. It’s easy to miss signs that there may be more going on than learning to love each other.

Children who come to your family through adoption often bring their own issues. Some can be healed through love and healthy attachments, but others need more interventions.

Some signs that a baby or toddler is having issues can include:

  • Limited or no eye contact
  • Stiffening or arching when held
  • Extreme crying and stress when getting changed or bathed
  • Difficulty falling asleep (whether being held or not)
  • Frequent spitting up
  • Crying at things that usually soothe (car rides, bouncy chairs, swings, swaddling, etc.)
  • High drive to move and do and keep moving
  • Extremely narrow food choices
  • Sensory seeking or sensory avoiding (constantly swinging or won’t swing)

We know that children who are adopted have had something go wrong in their short lives. It doesn’t mean anyone intentionally harmed them. Prematurity and time in neonatal intensive care or foster care can all be a kind of trauma to a baby or young child. And also bad stuff sometimes happens, and the new family will never know if there was physical abuse or neglect.

Strong attachment-parenting practices, along with lots of demonstrations of safety and love, can go a long way toward healing; but sometimes it’s not enough, and a child is diagnosed with special needs.

Some needs are emotional and psychological, such as reactive attachment disorder. Others are more common, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities in general, or sensory processing disorder. To help children with special needs, you can take steps to help them relearn certain skills, reduce symptoms of the disorder, and find appropriate methods for learning.

Most counties have a Child Find team (a federal program for infants and toddlers with disabilities that is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) that can offer free screening and evaluations to young children who are suspected of having a learning issue. And if needed, the team can provide early-intervention therapies and support, such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and therapeutic preschool programs.

Babies, toddlers, and school-aged children can usually get evaluations done at their closest children’s hospital or by their pediatrician, and many universities also do supervised graduate-student assessments. Public schools also can do assessments to determine if your child needs more formalized supports and services, such as an individualized education plan, or IEP.

It’s never easy to face that your child may have special needs, and there is a unique layer of stress when your child is adopted. We Solo Moms want the world to see how capable and awesome we are as mothers and when our kids struggle, it feels like a reflection on us.

Unfortunately, the rates of adopted kids with special needs (regardless of what age they are adopted) does show that it is likely your kids will struggle in some way.

The Institute for Family Studies came out with a report in 2015 that said, “At the start of kindergarten, about one in four adopted children has a diagnosed disability, twice the rate of children being raised by both biological parents.” The institute conducted a follow-up study that showed by eighth grade, half of adopted children have diagnosed disabilities. Most needs are in the mild to moderate range with mostly attention issues and learning disorders.

It is really important that as a Solo Mom who is also a mom through adoption, you find support for yourself. Perhaps there is a support group in your area you can join. In my ADHD support group, about one-third of the parents had built their families through adoption. They felt safe and learned they were not alone. (As both a mom through adoption and a mom of a child with special needs, I can also relate.) Since the group had parents who became parents in many different ways but we were all there because our child had ADHD, everyone felt supported. We left each meeting with new strategies or ideas to implement at home as well as in school. We also found a tribe that seemed to normalize everyone’s experience.

The Institute for Family Studies also found that parents who have adopted usually have resources to provide help for their children and hold high expectations along with a strong belief in their children—all things that can help any family who is raising kids with special needs.

Adoption is an act of love, and Solo Moms need to be supported. Accurate information, strong support networks, and the willingness to find the resources you need will help you provide a safe, healthy, and loving foundation for you and your child. You are not alone!


Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.


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