Adopting a Child with Autism

Autism Blog Aug 2022

As you begin your adoption journey, you’re likely to pause as you consider your future child’s abilities; from diagnoses like fetal alcohol spectrum disorders to autism or Down syndrome, there are plenty of “special needs” your new little one may hold as a diagnosis. And while those diagnoses are nothing to be taken lightly, there is more info you need to know before you mark “no” on an autism diagnosis.

So, what is autism?

Autism is a neurological and developmental condition that affects how people communicate, behave, learn, and interact with others (National Institute of Mental Health). Symptoms of autism generally present themselves within a child’s first two years of life.

Because autism is a spectrum, it is important to note that the condition does not look the same in every child. Rather, signs of autism can include, but are not always, behaviors like lack of eye contact, difficulties sharing in imaginative play, or becoming upset by slight changes in routine. Autism is generally characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors (Adopters for Adoption). Since autism is a spectrum, don’t assume a diagnosis of autism means your child is nonverbal or has significant daily struggles. Your AGCI team is the best resource to answer your questions and help you decide if you are prepared to bring a child with autism home.

According to an article by RainbowKids, struggles of adoptive parents bringing home a child with autism often begin in the early days of their international visit or upon their return home. “Often during the first few days, the child will not make any eye contact, will often refuse to move or eat, and will resort to self-soothing behaviors or rages because of the sudden changes in their lives.”

These tough instances of parenting provide parents beautiful opportunities to use Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®). Before completing their adoption process, all AGCI adoptive parents will learn the fundamentals of TBRI® and the importance of utilizing TBRI® in parenting children who have experienced trauma through a platform called Families Are Forever. Families Are Forever is the only online, on-demand training authorized and endorsed by the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development (KPICD).

Tragically, KPICD states that children with autism are at least twice as likely to be exposed to trauma than typically developing children. This is even more reason for you to prepare for your adoption. An article from KPICD says, “Children from hard places who also have [autism] require trauma-informed interventions to meet their unique needs and to help them reach their highest potential.”

There are many potential therapy and support options for children with autism for parents to research. One therapy option recommended by KPICD is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy. ABA involves emphasis on positive reinforcement and behavior shaping. The crossover between TBRI® and ABA is addressed in a KPICD practice brief. An additional resource from KPICD regarding TBRI® and autism is from season three, episode one of The TBRI® Podcast.

Other evidence-based treatment options for autism include Integrated Play Therapy, Pivotal Response Training (PRT), Discrete trial teaching, Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), and Lovaas Model, among others (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). Of course, it is important to do your own research when looking into potential therapies and supports for your child and to pick what is best for your family!

Adopters for Adoption lists the following tips to help your adoptive child with autism thrive:

1) Learn about autism. The more you understand autism, the more equipped you’ll be to make decisions for your child.

2) Become an expert on your child. Ask your AGCI team any questions you may have about your child’s personality, potential triggers, and other ways you can support your child. Keep in mind that your child has lived a life before you – like any other adoptive child, there is a history of hardship that you should ready yourself to help your son or daughter process.

3) Accept differences. Enjoy your child’s quirks and love them well! The unconditional love of a parent is important for children of all abilities.

4) Don’t give up. It’s impossible to fully predict what challenging behaviors (and blessings!) your adoptive child will bring to your family. Your child needs your love, support, and perseverance more than you may ever know!

If you are considering adopting a child with autism, don’t make assumptions about how the experience will go. As always, adoption is a beautiful, yet unpredictable, journey – regardless of diagnoses or traumas. Release your expectations about how your adoption journey will go so you can be ready for the unexpected!

Give yourself and your future child grace, and don’t forget about your AGCI team’s support. “There are many things adoptive parents can do to help children with [autism] overcome their challenges,” says Adopters for Adoption. “But it’s also important to make sure you get the support you need… Taking care of yourself is not a luxury or an act of selflessness – it’s a necessity.”

Other resources suggested by the AGCI Adoption Team: