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“What Kind of Special Needs Does Your Daughter Have?”

When another parent instantly recognized Natalie’s differences, it hit me hard that no matter how much we practice social skills, ADHD is always front and center.

We adopted our daughter, Natalie, from Russia when she was two years old, and over time we learned that she has ADHD with a few comorbid conditions. While some adoptive parents view questions about their child and the circumstances of his/her adoption as rude and intrusive, I’ve always welcomed such conversations and the opportunities they give me to educate others. Same goes for questions about Nat’s differing abilities. In my experience, these questions typically come from a place of kindness, not nosiness.

Still, I was a little bit taken aback by the directness of a question that came my way during our recent spring break vacation at Clearwater Beach in Florida. The dad under the beach umbrella next to us came right out and asked: “What kind of special needs does your daughter have?” I’m sure he noticed the uncomfortable pause before I answered him. It wasn’t the question itself that bothered me; it was the slap in the face of realizing just how visible Nat’s issues are to others that stung, for her sake more than mine.

Natalie really, really, really likes to have someone to play with, and this vacation was no exception. She’d been approaching kids at the pool all week. “My name’s Natalie. What’s yours? How old are you? I’m eleven. Do you want to play?” She was about 75% successful – most of the kids she approached became her latest best friend, until it was time for dinner, or their vacation was over and they headed home. These kids clearly accepted Natalie and enjoyed her company, whether they saw her differences or not. The other 25% gave off signs of discomfort with having this girl-stranger suddenly in their faces. I used these opportunities to point out such signals to Natalie and help her interpret these social cues. I was feeling really good about Natalie’s progress in this week-long social skills lesson. In fact, I had just been thinking about how I was a little jealous of her outgoing personality, and wishing I was a little more like her, when the question came.

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Natalie was playing in the sand near our beach umbrella and chairs when she spotted two girls who appeared to be about her age, and their dad, claim a space next to us. Whispered negotiations ensued. “Can I go ask those girls to play? Please, Mom? Can I?” We practiced what she would say, and how she’d need to let it go and come right back if the girls made excuses or somehow didn’t seem interested. Then I gave her my blessing. Off she went.

The girls did make excuses. They were leaving in about 5 minutes, they said. Nat started to chat. “What book are you reading? Have you read the Hunger Games?” I interrupted after a few uncomfortable minutes. “Time to come back over here, Nat,” I said. She looked disappointed, but she said goodbye to the girls and returned to our camp. A few minutes later the girls and Nat had all gone off in their own directions, and just their dad and I remained. (No, the family did not leave after 5 minutes.) Dad called over to me. “What kind of special needs does your daughter have? My girls asked if she’s autistic, but I told them I didn’t think so.”



Here I was feeling so good about seeing improvement in Nat’s social skills, and all the while, Nat’s special needs were obvious and visible to those around us.

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The dad and I ended up having a good conversation. The family lives in Canada, and we talked about the services his nephew, who has autism, receives through Canada’s socialized system of medicine, and at his school. We discussed how Canada is ahead of the US in services for kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. We talked about international adoption. He has friends who were in China as we spoke, adopting a little girl. The man was neither nosy nor rude, judgmental nor stupid. It turned out okay.

But his question keeps replaying in mind. “What kind of special needs does your daughter have?” And each time it does, even though my beach vacation sunburn has faded, my face still stings.

Is your child’s ADHD or other condition/s visible to others, through his behavior, poor social skills, or stereotypic movements? Has a stranger ever asked you about your child’s condition? How did you respond? And more importantly, how did you feel when asked the question?

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