The following blog was written by Martin Butcher, an adoptee, and adoptive father of a child with FAS.
Adopting a child with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is life changing, no doubt about it. But so is adopting any child. When I was adopted back in the 1960s it changed my parents’ lives. They drove me home through some of the biggest snowdrifts of the 20th century, stopping to feed me in the back of the car and realizing they had little idea what to do. They managed.
Our decision to adopt was made easier for us because my parents did a good job with me. They ignored what they were told back then, and made sure I knew about my adoption from before I could understand what adoption was. They always impressed on me that I was their son, no different to my birth sisters that followed. I was part of the family. End of. And this at a time when parents were told, unbelievably, to keep adoptions secret to avoid difficulties. They didn’t. They addressed the issue and it worked. So adoption was a natural thing for us.
Had we known our son has FASD, would it have made a difference? This is an important question, all the more so this week. This week is National Adoption Week in the UK. One study showed that in Peterborough as many as 75% of the children available for adoption were exposed to alcohol in the womb. A school local to us estimates that fully half the adopted children on their roll are on the FASD spectrum. Should those kids, many of whom may have FASD, remain in the care system, denied the stability and life chances a loving family can bring them? Of course not.
As an adopted child, the idea of shopping around for the “perfect” baby was horrifying to me, as if such a thing is possible anyway! I couldn’t imagine browsing images of children as if from a mail order catalogue. If you have a birth child, you take what fate brings. So it should be with adoption. We had both decided before our first son was born that although my wife was in a very high risk group for delivering a baby with Downs Syndrome, we wouldn’t take the tests. We didn’t need to. He was our baby, part of our family. In the event, our older son was born with no disabilities. But it meant years before we got to adopting our second son, we had considered what it meant to raise a child with a disability and we had decided that we could.
That’s what you need to figure out before adopting. These days, when I speak to adoption social workers or to prospective adopters, I stress the positive. I say to people that raising a child with FASD isn’t something to be undertaken lightly, but neither is it something to be avoided. Read about FASD, think about whether you are ready for the challenge, go into an adoption with your eyes open, that’s essential. Don’t just shy away from a child because of a particular condition. In any case, you may not know. FASD is widely under-diagnosed. Doctors are not well trained in recognising the condition. Diagnosis is not always easy to get. Some social workers fear labelling a child with a diagnosis because it will then be harder to find an adoptive family for them.
Kids with FASD need a family’s love just like any other child. In fact, they need it more because they face so many challenges. FASD is brain damage, permanent, irreversible. Many kids with the condition have learning disabilities. All have executive functioning difficulties and cognitive problems. There are up to 428 co-morbid physical conditions that kids can have. All of this may be unknown when the child is adopted, especially if they are adopted young.
We didn’t know our son had FASD when we adopted him, he wasn’t diagnosed for another 8 years. But we did know he had major issues, including developmental delays. He was 16 months old and completely silent when he came to us from the children’s home where he had been since birth. He also wasn’t walking – although he very quickly did. We knew there was something. We just didn’t know what.
So what do I advise? Learn about the problems your child is likely to have. How difficult school will be. The attendant sleep problems. How anxiety and stress of day to day life might force your child into meltdown in a few seconds. Toys and windows may be broken. People may be hit. Social issues will be there, and will grow as your child ages. Marriages and other relationships will be strained. Family may help, or they may fade into an uncaring background. You will find who your real friends are, the ones who are there day in, day out no matter what. Some days may be long, very long. Don’t go into this wearing rose-tinted glasses. Be real.
But if after doing all of your research, you feel you are ready, do go into it. Know that the life chances for your child improve dramatically in a stable and loving home. Know that you will join a caring and inclusive community of parents who support each other online, and at support groups, every day of the year. Be sure that your child will bring a huge amount of love into your lives. That their smile will brighten the darkest day. That their achievements will warm your heart and make you proud, particularly because they will be trying harder than any other child you know to succeed, even to get through the day.
Be careful. Be sure. An adoption is a lifetime decision. But, all this considered, go along and find out about adoption. See if it will work for you. If the answer is yes, don’t turn a child away just because they have FASD. Learn about the cognitive and parenting strategies available to help you and them. They need you in their life, and you need them. Your life will be the richer for them, and theirs for you.