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My chapter from the book:
Adopting Children With Special Needs:
A Sequel

Linda Dunn, editor

published by
North American Council on Adoptable Children
Washington DC 1983
reprinted with permission

 By 8:30 a.m. each school day the house quiets down - no more pattering of small feet, rumbling of wheelchairs, and clunking of leg braces. My eleven children, of all assorted ages, races, sizes, and disabilities are off to school. Nine of my children are adopted.

 I find most children with mental or physical disabilities to be easier to raise than "normal children." They're often more peaceful and affectionate and less demanding, and less full of requests, desires, and arguments. They know what they have to overcome, to achieve. And when they master a task they easily identify "something to feel good about." Of course, the older a child is when they enter a family, the harder it will be to change any negative behaviors they bring with them.

 I do lay down firm rules, and try to be consistent. When children are taught to behave themselves, and are given lots of love, it doesn't matter what disabilities they may have. Giving in to a disabled child and avoiding discipline can be disastrous for the child and for the family. In our family we stress the importance of listening to each other, and trying to be fair and kind.

 Our household is fairly smooth-running and organized. All nine children who are able, help. They work well together and accomplish a lot, often making up games as they go. Helping has been part of their lives as far as they can remember, and they're all aware of my pride in their abilities. It's essential for them to feel needed, to know they're important to me and to each other. The older children have daily jobs listed on a chart. Allowances increase as they learn to remember these jobs on their own.

 I drive a van, and use two motorcycle ramps to get the five wheelchairs in and out. We go many places together - friends, picnics, restaurants, the ocean. Only one child needs to be pushed. Favorite times are when grandma and grandpa come over, or when I'm feeling playful down on the floor and wrestling with the bunch.

 How did it it all begin? Twelve years ago I became a foster mother of disabled babies. It was fun and rewarding to me, and when an opportunity arose later to adopt two children I'd fostered for years, I was thrilled.

 After those first two adoptions it seemed only natural to continue. I'd always wanted a large family, and by this time I was fully committed and enjoying my lifestyle with all my heart. I was drawn to children with disabilities. Knowing that God had created them; and seeing their value and potential, they were precious to me.

 I've seen a bumper sticker that reads "Adoption Is Addicting." There's truth in that, for a very important and logical reason. With each adoption, the addition of another child becomes easier, and the family absorbs the new personality with more ease and less tension. I've found that the larger the family the stronger the unit. And the stronger the unit, the more easily it can withstand the buffeting of occasional problems, such as surgery, or sickness.

 So the rewards outweigh the difficulties. And the idea of adoption becomes easier and more fun each time. Of course each decision to adopt must be carefully thought through, and energy and available time honestly evaluated. I believe only the parent can do this - sometimes the innermost feelings of a prospective adoptive parent makes little sense to a caseworker. I had difficulties with my first three adoptions because of worker prejudices against large families, against single parents, and against adopting disabled children. She wouldn't allow herself to believe that I knew what was best for me, and best for my children. Only after I changed agencies did I find an open, positive attitude. Adoption for me no longer was a grim, endless battle.

 I'm often asked how we manage financially. My answer: fine, thank God. Each child receives monthly Supplemental Security Income, or adoption support, as well as full state medical coverage. Without such assistance we never could have become a family.

 Only once in all these years have I found the problems of one of my children to outweigh the rewards - at least for a time. Even this son's story has a happy ending, but I believe there are others like him still waiting, and his story may encourage someone to look a bit more openly at a child more difficult than one initially considered. This son, Chad Ryan, gave me the most grief, the most frustration, and the biggest challenge. But he also taught me patience, and the greatest sense of accomplishment when he finally began to overcome his emotional problems. I'm convinced he never could have overcome these difficulties without the stability, love, and discipline of a forever family.

 Chad burst upon the scene like a small tornado. At age five he screamed like a hyena, hopped on his knees and one usable hand much like a galloping kangaroo, and basically didn't act much like any human being I'd ever seen before. He was hyperactive, couldn't walk, wasn't toilet trained, couldn't understand words or talk much besides yelling "no!" Chad came to me as a foster child, and I was given very little information about him. I was told he had cerebral palsy, was retarded, and couldn't use his right hand. No big deal, I thought - I'd seen those problems before. Little did I know what I was in for!

 I later found out his IQ was 33, and his problems were due to a severe head injury and brain hemorrhage at two months old. His medical report indicated a search was made for a two parent home for Chad - workers were certain it would take two parents to cope with him. Truthfully though, I believe that no marriage could have survived under the strain. The report said he needed a mother with a lot of energy. That's me, I thought.

 I found out it wasn't just energy Chad's mom needed. Tons of patience and persistence were necessary too.

 At five, Chad was the size of a three year old. His intense blue eyes gave no indication of how little was going on inside his head. He looked normal and even angelic. He learned a few questions - his speech was clear and perfect. But he didn't know what he was saying. When I tried to answer his questions, he'd explode in frustration, screaming and pounding the floor and hopping wildly in circles. After a year of such behavior I decided his reactions were because he knew words were supposed to make sense, and they didn't to him. So he was miserable. His entire vocabulary was: "Where are you mommy?" "What time is it?" "Where is your car?" "I love you mommy," and "no!"

 He'd repeat his four questions dozens of times a day. He'd chew his useless hand or violently suck his good thumb. He actually sucked his thumbnail clear off twice! It was very slow to grow back. Toys were only to chew and throw. Baby sister Skyla's head was to bite hard when she was nearby. His unusable right hand was to slap and scream at. Rugs and quilts were to urinate on when he was angry; he was angry all the time, and self-abusive.

 I wondered a lot whether I should give up on Chad. I worried about whether I was damaging my other children by spending so much time trying to reach this son, to teach him something and find something in him to love. He loved me though. How could I give up on him, when everybody else had, knowing that a large part of his problems were because of terrible insecurity. He'd been in too many homes; not one could stand him more than nine months. The one home that kept him that long, I found out later, closed down for foster care after Chad left. He seemed terrified to let me out of his sight, probably for fear he'd be transported to another home - he seemed sure we were going to leave him if he lost sight of me for a moment.

 That first year he learned a lot - like not to bite Skyla, not to urinate on rugs, to use the toilet during the day, and not to scream in the house. It didn't seem like much, but it was progress. He was enraged when the other kids had fun with things that made no sense to him. It took three years before he gained enough self-control not to disrupt their games and activities.

 When I got Chad, his longest attention span was 30 seconds. His school's goal was to increase that goal to 60 seconds. One year's worth of effort to get him to pay attention for one minute.

 I kept a journal of Chad's behavior the second year he was with us, so I could read the good parts when I got discouraged, and remind myself how much he'd achieved. He learned to put away his clothes - with pictures of the right items taped to drawers and shelves. Of course he had to learn first, not to pull off the pictures and chew on them! He also became less frenetic. I no longer had to hold him down to kiss him goodnight (because he'd leap with such excitement he'd crack my nose or teeth with his head!) And he stopped biting and banging himself, and even occasionally smiled at himself in the mirror.

 Chad learned to walk at age seven, in a series of wild lunges. He had no balance, so could not stand in one place, or turn to go in another direction. He still couldn't play much, but he began enjoying watching the other kids. They in turn joined him in things he could do.

 By the end of that second year I knew we were going to make it and I made the decision to adopt him. I was getting glimpses of the very nice child inside, and how he'd be in later years. Five years later, he's come so far and our routines are so established, he's no longer a problem.

 Chad wasn't legally freed for adoption for another two and a half years. Now, at ten, he's at last a true and legal member of our family. And he fully understands the security that represents, and is proud and happy. Chad still comes in from the back yard about every 45 minutes to make sure I haven't evaporated. The hurt is still there, from being left so many times.

 Today, he can listen to simple stories, knows his colors, counts pretty well to 20, can trace circles and lines and his name, and reads a few basic words, working with me at home. He shares well now, both toys and my time, and gets a great deal of enjoyment from his siblings. He and Skyla, now six, clear the dinner table together. Neither can walk carrying things, so they crawl and push the dishes ahead of them on the floor. Both want to know they're needed and helpful like everyone else, and get their share of praise and appreciation.

 Except for buttons, Chad can now completely dress himself, and is much less sloppy when feeding himself. He clearly feels more secure now that he is a BIG brother, and new siblings have arrived after him. He calls the little ones together and sings with them, which they love. He and I have entire simple conversations now - a far cry from those years my whole communication with him with him was in three words or less. His IQ is officially up to 51 - he may have gone as high as he can, but has already made goals I thought were too high to work toward, even by adulthood. I want Chad to have the gift of knowing how to be a friend, because that, more than intelligence or skill brings happiness as an adult. It's happiness and security deep within that I want for my son. He'd never have this if I'd done what I felt like doing for so long - giving up on him. And he has it now, which gives me great joy.

 Chad's siblings often have had more patience with him than I've had, and have been important to his development.

paracon here Catherine Joy is my oldest child, at 16. She's profoundly retarded, with Down's Syndrome, but is happy to do tiny jobs around the house, and feels well rewarded by my hugs.

 Julianne Teresa is 13 and also has Down's Syndrome, but is only moderately retarded (on the other end of the scale from Catherine Joy) - about first grade level. She's been with me since infancy, although she was not freed for me to adopt until she was eight. She's a willing and very real help to me - always the first to volunteer to help with the little ones and housework.

 Lisa Noelle is ten and a half and Kyle Eric is nine; both were born to me when I was married. They've become enthusiastic adoption advocates and love our lifestyle. Noelle was the one who, at age five, taught her younger, partially paralyzed sister to crawl, and who works on baby brother to learn to sit up. Kyle's the one to speak up when he thinks someone is getting the raw end of the deal, the one to soothe a hurt, bandage the cut, wrestle with the one left out of a game, who insists that sad feelings be talked out and mended. Relatives' worries about the impact of our lifestyle on these two "normal" children are unfounded: the fact that Noelle and Kyle are so well-adjusted, busy and creative, independent and happy, is one of my biggest joys.

 Cherise Monique is seven, black, and has cerebral palsy. She has normal intelligence, but being spastic quadriplegic robs her of much of the use of her body. Labels rob her of her humanity. None of her medical records mention her sunny smile, bubbly personality, or how her lovely black eyes sparkle when she's happy. I adopted Cherise a year ago: she'd lived in a New York institution full of profoundly retarded children all her life. She'd never known children who could play, talk, and sing; and is enchanted with the antics of her siblings. She feeds herself and is potty trained, and her speech is improving all the time, (she has trouble forming words, and pushing out enough air to make them audible, and is often difficult to understand.) With her new power wheelchair, she now can keep up with her siblings. The new chair also allows her to get on and off the school bus independently, once I've helped her down the hill to the street. We've also moved Cherise from a bed to a mattress on the floor which she can crawl onto herself. She's delighted with her new freedom.

 Six year old Skyla Dawnielle's spina bifida slows her down very little, except for leg movement and bowel and bladder control. She came as a foster child at two months old, and it took just over two years to legally adopt her. Though partially paralyzed from the waist down, she's built up an extraordinarily strong upper body, and climbs anywhere - including the kitchen counter - with 99% arm power. The bus driver calls her "giggles."

 Antonio Dominic, nearly six, shares a room with Chad. He is Hispanic, has cerebral palsy and can't walk, but crawls in slow motion. I adopted him from Texas at three years old. He's mastered feeding himself, but can't dress himself yet. He says over 100 words. He's severely retarded, (IQ of 31). He is a happy little boy, with a beautiful smile. Tony can climb in and out of his wheelchair and high chair, and is as peaceful in his personality, as Chad is high strung.

 Misty Angelita is a special daughter. She's four, black, and is profoundly retarded (IQ around 6). She hasn't learned to respond to her environment much, but is happy. At times she makes soft humming sounds; sometimes she will just giggle. I adopted her from Pennsylvania at age two and a half, knowing she was going to be different from the others. I did not know HOW different! She was fearful of being touched, of noise, of trying to drink from a bottle. I rocked her snugly in my lap every night, after the others were in bed. Finally, after seven months of this, she didn't startle when I picked her up and arch back as if in extreme discomfort. Noelle is teaching her to be ticklish. Now she appears to enjoy the noise of the children around her. She won't develop very far, but if she knows me and remains happy, then so am I.

 Starr Celestia is three and a half and is mildly retarded with Down's Syndrome. She came to me from California, at six months old. I believe her excellent progress is due to her brothers and sisters, playing and talking with her. It's a standing joke - our family IS an infant stimulation program!

 Joshua Timothy, our baby, is 14 months old. He was born with cerebral palsy, is spastic quadriplegic, microcephalic, and was diagnosed as failure to thrive. I adopted him at seven months old, and he certainly is thriving now. He's trying to roll over, laughs out loud, and is developing better head control. He suffers with reflux, but is very responsive and is a delight to us all.

 The children all enjoy our family rituals - like candlelight dinners, Christmas music in July, holding hands and thanking God for dinner. They like it when I tell them what I enjoy in each of them. At bedtime I spend time with each one, with a "kiss and hug and pray" love time, and any talk we haven't had a chance for during the day. They listen intently when I say "I love you more than all the sunsets over the ocean, all the wind in the fir trees, and all the birds in the sky. I love you more than all the snow in the arctic. I even love you more than Christmas!"

 And I mean it.

(C)1983 Rosemary J. Gwaltney