Lauren with her son adopted from Hong Kong on the day the adoption was finalized in court.

There is no denying the stress and challenges that often accompany living life with a disability or chronic illness.  As a mom to a child with significant special needs, I am keenly aware of those daily challenges. With the support of family, however, many children born with special needs go on to live healthy, meaningful lives. But for children around the globe who live in orphanages and lack access to a family unit and good medical care, being born with special needs most often means a life-long sentence of institutionalization and neglect.  My son was almost one such statistic.

In 2011, my family and I traveled to Hong Kong, China to adopt a four-year old child with autism and significant cognitive delay.  After living in two different orphanages, international adoption was his last option before being sent to a mental institution to live out the remainder of his life.

UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 143 million orphaned children around the globe.  There are no hard statistics on how many of those are special needs children.

Reece’s Rainbow, an organization that supports adoption of children with Down Syndrome and special needs, states that it has helped to place over 500 special needs children with families since 2006.  Many organizations now advocate for the adoption of HIV+ children in Africa, where the number of such orphans is staggering.  In China, it has currently been estimated that nearly 50% of adoptions can be labeled as special needs adoptions.  In the US, it is estimated that 40-60% of children available for adoption through foster care have special needs, whether they be physical or emotional due to childhood trauma and multiple placements. Although there are no solid statistics of a global number, it is evident that there are many children with special needs around the world who are in need of families and support.

It should also be noted that UNICEF estimates that 90-95% of those 143 million global orphans are over the age of 5. As many adoption professionals would agree, any child who has lived for 5 years or more in an orphanage or unstable environment can be classified as a special needs child.

In fact, it is known from extensive research that for every three months in an orphanage, a child will lose one month of development.  Inadequate care, lack of nutrition, little stimulation and too few caregivers are just some of the many reasons that living in an orphanage is far from optimal for a developing child.  Research by adoption professionals has demonstrated that the developing brain is certainly affected by an environment of constant stress and neglect.

So if we consider that many children who are abandoned or relinquished around the globe were born with special needs, and that many of the current orphans world-wide could be considered special needs based on extended time in orphanages, we would find that the plight of the special needs orphan is extensive.  Unfortunately, special needs children, especially older ones, can be hard to place with adoptive families.  Many adoptive families wish to adopt a young, healthy child and may doubt that they could properly care for an older or special needs child.

Sadly, those of us in the international adoption community have heard the countless first-hand reports of orphanage volunteers and adoptive parents who have witnessed the complete lack of care of orphans who have aged out of the orphanage and are now living in mental institutions.  Photos and personal stories sometimes grace the blogs of adoption advocates and can be profoundly disturbing and heartbreaking to read about.  It is hard to imagine any child living in such awful conditions.

I could never do what you do,” is usually the first response from people who hear our adoption story.  I am here to tell you that there is nothing particularly special about me. You could certainly do what I do. I have no special parenting skills, nor do I have any special training in regards to children with special needs.  I also acknowledge, however, that adoption (especially a special needs adoption) is certainly not for everyone.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways that anyone can help with the plight of the special needs orphan. Many of the foundations and agencies that advocate for HIV+ and special needs orphans also have child sponsorship programs.  Other organizations offer people the chance to help financially support the adoption process for special needs children.

Also, there are volunteer opportunities in orphanages that are specifically geared for caring for special needs children.  If you truly wish to make a difference in the life of a special needs orphan, there are many ways to contribute besides adoption.  I hope that in the future, you will consider lending your time or resources to helping these vulnerable children of the world.

This is an original post for World Mom’s Blog written by Lauren Beihoffer. Lauren is a lover of nature, an avid hiker and mama to two boys adopted from across the globe—one who happens to have autism.  She is passionate about special needs adoption and the great outdoors.  

You can find Lauren blogging about all of her adventures at where she hopes to inspire others to get outdoors and explore.  She fiercely believes that adventure is for all.

Photo credit to the author. 

Lauren @Hike.Blog.Love. (USA)

Lauren is a lover of nature, an avid hiker and mama to two boys adopted from across the globe—one who happens to have autism. She is passionate about special needs adoption and the great outdoors. You can find Lauren blogging about all of her adventures at "", Hike Blog Love. where she hopes to inspire others to get outdoors and explore. She fiercely believes that adventure is for all.

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