Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Adoption and the Special Needs Child – The Facts!

The most common comment I hear from people interested in adoption is “I could never adopt a child with special needs; I just don’t think I could handle it.” But the sad fact is, the vast majority of children waiting for adoption here in BC, have special needs. This results in many people opting for international or private adoptions. That is not necessarily a problem, since children all over the world need a home. However, the chances that a child adopted from overseas might also have special needs are just as high. Many people find themselves jumping to certain stereotypes about “special needs” and immediately start thinking of Down syndrome, mental retardation, feeding tubes, wheel chairs and even autism. While all of those are real and possible situations, the majority of children waiting to be adopted out of government care have FAS and/or prenatal drug exposure (what use to be referred to as NAS). Since those are the most common diagnosis’ you deal with in the Ministry of Children and Families, those are the two I am going to discuss today.

Let’s start with Prenatal Drug Exposure, or NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome).  This is surprisingly the less severe of the two. Children exposed to drugs prenatally typically outgrow most symptoms by age 1, and research regarding long term learning disabilities is still being done. A child can be affected prenatally by such drugs as: heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and marijuana. Depending on the type of drug used, symptoms can include:
  • Irritability
  • Excessive and/or high pitched crying
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Feeding problems
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Sleep problems
Newborns typically go through withdrawal at birth and again at 6 weeks of age. Often morphine is used to aid in the child’s withdrawal and may require extended hospital time. Caring for a child with drug exposure does require specialized training, but can be found through the Ministry of Children and Families and is very informative. While research is still being done, long term effects may include delayed motor development, lowered cognitive development, distractibility and hyperactivity. Diagnosis is done right at birth based on drug tests from either the birth mother or newborn.

Now let’s look at FAS, or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This is by far the most common special need you will find amongst Canada’s Waiting Children. FAS is simply the result of a newborn having exposure to alcohol while still in the womb. FAS can occur from as little as one drink, to as often as continual drinking throughout the pregnancy. A mother who drinks one glass of alcohol during week 6 may have a child with facial features and no behavioural issues, while another mother may drink many drinks, every weekend, starting in the 4th month of her pregnancy, and have severe behavioural issues, yet minimal facial features. FAS can be found in all economic and racial groups, is not genetic or inherited, and leads to physical abnormalities and/or behavioural and cognitive problems. The following is a list of common characteristics found in preschool children with FAS:
  • Hypersensitivity to touch
  • ADD
  • Hyperactivity (always on the go, never sit still, never seems to listen)
  • Impulsiveness
  • Accident prone (possibly a combination of hyperactivity and poor coordination)
  • Extreme mood changes (laughs or cries too readily)
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Constantly demands attention
  • Low threshold for frustration
  • Unusual aggressiveness
  • Frequent temper tantrums over trivial problems
  • Disobedient in response to requests from parents
  • Unable to adapt easily to changes in routine activities
  • Requires more direct supervision than other children
  • Overly friendly and social towards adults
  • Sleep problems
  • Lack of coordination
  • (From: Abel, 1988)

Diagnosis happens roughly at age 4 or 5, or the spring before a child enters into kindergarten. Diagnosis is done by specialists trained in FAS, and includes psychology and speech assessments along with a paediatrician’s evaluation.

There you have it. The basic characteristics of the two most common diagnoses’ of Canadian children waiting for adoption. I am not sure if I have made you more scared or less scared! They may seem overwhelming at first, but to the untrained eye, most people will simply think your child is acting “naughty” or “misbehaving,” or that you are an overly cautious parent. Neither of these syndromes, however, is unmanageable. While you cannot outgrow, cure, or treat FAS, learning how to deal with the characteristics can be done.  With the support of social workers, paediatricians, Infant Development Centres, Child Development Centres, and many other health care professionals, raising these children can be one of the most rewarding things you have ever done. Will it require an extra cup of coffee? Perhaps. But is it something most parents cannot handle? Definitely not. If you’re thinking of possibly adopting a child with special needs, I would encourage you to do research on the above two syndromes, or attend the Adoption or Fostering Training offered by the Ministry of Children and Families to learn more. You may think YOU can’t handle it, but God knows HE can!

(The above article is more factual about the characteristics of FAS and NAS. Stay tuned for another article detailing the day to day situations of raising children with just such issues!)

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