Adoptees Among Students with Disabilities

Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 529-531, 543

G. Emerson Dickman, J.D.

I was truly delighted by Brodzinsky and Steiger’s (1991) insightful presentation of their findings regarding the overrepresentation of adoptees among special education populations. As a child advocate in the field of special education over the past 15 years, I have handled in excess of 300 cases involving the classification, programming, and placement of students deemed eligible for special education services. The majority of those cases have involved adolescent and preadolescent students classified or classifiable as emotionally disturbed (ED) under the laws of the State of New Jersey. Of those students I would estimate that in 75% one would find a commonality, that being a history of specific learning disorders. Of this subgroup, the vast majority has the same profile of multiple disabilities (i.e., attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, and nonverbal communications disorders). For the purposes of this discussion I will refer to a child experiencing such polymorbidity as an ALN child: A to represent attention deficit disorder, L to represent learning disability, and N to represent nonverbal learning disorder.

The second subgroup, constituting 15% to 20% of these cases I have handled involving adolescent and preadolescent students classified or classifiable as ED, has the commonality of being adopted with no significant history of ALN or any previously recognized learning or psychosocial development. The third subgroup, consisting of 5% to 10% of such cases, exhibits a common history of physical abuse, sexual molestation, or drug/alcohol dependent parents.

The most fundamental finding of the Brodzinsky and Steiger (1991) study was that among students classified in New Jersey as neurologically impaired (NI), perceptually impaired (PI), and emotionally disturbed (ED), “adopted children were overrepresented in all three special education populations” (p. 485). The research resulted in the finding that adopted children made up 1% to 2% of the general population of children, with the survey results indicating that “they accounted for 6.7% of the NI students, 5.4% of the PI students, and 7.2% of the ED students” (p.485).

Of course, adopted children are, in my experience, “overrepresented” in the subgroups of students I have represented, which I have identified as evidencing a history of ALN and abuse. However, the subgroup that appears to offer the most valuable insight into the unique needs of the adopted child is the 15% to 20% of students I have represented who do not evidence any obviously problematic biological, interpersonal, or intrapersonal history. It is the apparent absence of complicating pathology in this subgroup that has caused me to believe that these children are the least contaminated source for investigating the cause of adoptee “over-overrepresentation” in the ED population.

Can there be any doubt that “overrepresentation” in the NI/PI population is due, in large part, to the greater risk for prenatal and perinatal complications experienced by mothers likely to consider placing their children for adoption (Brodzinsky, 1987)? However, this does not explain the “overrepresentation” identified by Brodzinsky and Steiger (1991) in the ED population. Even what Brodzinsky and Steiger identified as the overrepresentation within the ED population is, I feel, a very conservative estimate of the percentage of adopted children classifiable as ED. As a matter of fact, in my experience, NJ tends to place NI students in private programs only when there is a significant psychosocial component in the student’s profiles that cannot be readily accommodated in the public sector. In other words, privately placed NI students are often diagnosed as being at emotional risk, that is, either (angrily) acting out or (fearfully) withdrawn. Our classified ED population in New Jersey is primarily an acting out population, because the more fearful, depressed, and withdrawn students can get away with the more socially acceptable label of NI and be provided the necessary “stress-reduced” environment in a private sector NI placement.

The validity of my observations regarding the existence of an “uncontaminated” (i.e., without a complicating history or pathology) adoptee group has been reinforced many times in my office. During an initial conference I review all Child Study Team records and listen to 60 to 90 minutes of parent reporting. If the interview results in a typical ED profile without the typical ALN history, I ask, as if I am completing an overlooked question on my intake form, whether the child is adopted. “Yes!” “How did you know?” or “We’ve never told anybody; even the school doesn’t know!”

In these cases the child has always been aware of his or her adopted status. A reasonable assumption about this “uncontaminated” population is that if they were not aware of their adopted status they would not be having a significant problem. Because awareness by the child of his or her adopted status appears to be a prerequisite for membership in this “uncontaminated” population, genetic factors can be discounted. I have observed many cases in which children who experience academic and social success with supportive and nurturing parents, nevertheless, could not successfully negotiate the demands of adolescence and required special education classification.

The common paradigms used to develop constructs to explain the psychosocial journey of the adopted child are inadequate. The models of “nature” and “nurture” (Weinberg, 1983) are too confining. Interactive models hold more promise (Brodzinsky & Steiger, 1991). However, experience has led me to believe that it is the independence demanded of the adolescent that triggers the awakening of psychosocial insecurities in the adopted child. Adolescence is a traumatic experience even for nondisabled children (Gardner, 1982). Physical, chemical, and psychosocial changes conspire to transform the child to an adult. During this period of metamorphosis, he or she seeks independence and identity. Identity is sought through separation from the family, the forming of new relationships, and experiencing and responding to new fears, needs, and desires (Gardner, 1982). This period forges our image of self (e.g., “Am I courageous?”, “kind?”, “generous?”, “dedicated?”, “a leader?”, etc.) Adolescence is a period of immense discovery – discovery about one’s place in society, and about how one views himself or herself. These discoveries are a result of searching and experimentation. At this time adolescents “find themselves”- become individuals and develop unique personalities.

Adolescents are like high-wire walkers, carefully stepping further and further away from their starting point (the family unit) in search of their unique identity. Adolescents who miss their step are usually secure in the knowledge that they will be caught in the safety net of genetic expectancy: “Chip off the old block”‘; “The acorn doesn’t fall too far from the tree”; “Like father, like son”; “What do you expect, look at his parents.” Throughout our formative years we are constantly reminded that we can expect to become in adulthood no less than the standard that our biological ancestors represent (genetic expectancy). Genetic expectancy is created by a society that gives special significance to genetic origins.

The role of genetic expectancy has a logical and obvious impact on the development of the natural child. His or her characteristics are attributed, by everybody around him or her, to characteristics displayed by a genetic ancestor. The resultant labeling of the natural child can be either a positive or a negative influence on development. When expectations are reasonable, they motivate achievement related to potential; if expectations are too high or two low, they have the potential of being destructive to optimal development (Price, Glickstein, Horton, & Bailey, 1982). Attributing characteristics to children by comparing them to a genetic ancestor triggers the self-fulfilling dynamics of prophecy. In other words, the comment, “You would make a good doctor, like your father”, may motivate a child to consider a medical career.

If genetic expectancy has an impact on the natural child, it is reasonable to conclude that a lack of genetic expectancy has a concomitant impact on the adopted child. A construct similar to genetic expectancy, “genealogical bewilderment” (Sants, 1964), involves the adopted adolescent’s confusion regarding origins. Genetic expectancy, like money, might not guarantee happiness, but the lack of it guarantees added stress and increases the likelihood of hardship and failure. An adopted child is an “acorn” without a “tree”, a “chip” without a “block”, a “son” without a “father.” No matter how good a relationship, or how understanding an adoptive parent, the safety net of “genetic expectancy” is not available.

The trait most likely to be attributed to natural parents by an adopted child is their apparent ability to desert, abandon, and forsake. An adopted child is like a house with footings that do not extend below the frost line. It looks and functions like a house, but you never know how it will react to a change in the weather. The object of the techniques and strategies used with the adopted child should be to extend such footings to insure stability in spite of changes in the weather. The adopted child is hyper-stressed in adolescence (Brodzinsky, 1987). To avoid the predictable consequences of such stress, it is essential to develop a strong foundation for personality development. Furthermore, the strategies required to strengthen the adopted child’s foundation must be employed prior to his or her adolescence. Opportunities for skill building and positive self-discovery must be afforded to the adopted child throughout his or her early development.

Self-esteem and self-confidence do not develop in a hostile or hyperstressed environment. In other words, the ALN child and the adopted child are at high risk for experiencing secondary emotional disorders in adolescence. The difficulty with delivering needed services to such children can be traced to intrinsic weaknesses in our system of education. I refer to such weaknesses as “quantitative accountability” and the “slice of time” perspective.

Quantitative accountability is the need for schools to quantify or establish concrete, measurable growth. We employ pre- and post testing to virtually every increment of educational experience, and we demand performance that is concrete and observable. Rather than spending 15 minutes on an exercise intended to promote self-esteem, a teacher is motivated by the need for quantitative results to spend time promoting measurable achievement. How many French verbs pupils learn reflects directly on the teacher; how good they feel about themselves does not figure in a teacher’s performance rating. Universal issues of morality, ethics, problem solving and decision making, as well as strategies for the acquisition of social competencies and nonverbal literacy, are left to develop by chance.

The second such weakness I call the “slice of time” perspective. A beach ball is photographed in flight. Features such as size, color, and design are clearly and precisely defined. However, our photograph leaves us without perspective as to origin or destination. Our current procedure of multidisciplinary educational evaluations describes a child “in flight.” The child with the ALN profile and the adopted child are emotional time bombs. Yet, we do little or nothing to defuse these bombs. The emphasis is on what is, not what will be. We devote our attention to a slice of time, without proper consideration of prognosis. To quantify the success of interventions, we are motivated to establish concrete baselines that focus only on what can be seen and measured (size, color, and design).

The combination of “quantitative accountability” and the “slice of time” perspective has established a dynamic that ignores strategies intended to prevent problems. The nature of our system of education requires that a problem exist before resources can be devoted to its remediation (You are too close to the fire only if you actually suffer burns.) Our system of education provides greater rewards to those who cure than to those who prevent, reversing Ben Franklin’s axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

The discussion of the Newtonian Mechanistic Paradigm by Heshusius (1989) provided considerable insight into the weakness of the medical model/scientific method approach to diagnosis and remediation in education. (See also my [1990] response to Heshusius’s article.) Our educational system is hostage to accountability and slave to vestigial paradigms.

Whether or not they are disabled in the biological sense, adopted children receive no response to this lack of “genetic expectancy” until they actually display a damaged psyche. Our children deserve more. Strategies are available that can respond successfully to this need; our educational system must help to provide an efficacious delivery system.

Brodzinsky and Steiger (1991) indicated that many of the problems of the adopted child “are best understood as an expression of the child’s grief [italics added] over adoption-related loss” (p.487). The grief model is conceptually limited in that it attempts to interpret the effect of being without “origins,” “heritage” (Brodzinsky, 1987), or “genealogy” (Sants, 1964) as a loss. In contrast to the “grief” theory, I believe that the problems of adopted children who do not evidence a history of ALN are less related to a loss than they are to a lack.

The difference, as I see it, is a pathology based on mourning and grief for what has occurred in the past (Kubler-Ross, 1969) and a pathology based on fear and uncertainty over what may occur in the future. “As part of the struggle for self-definition, adolescents seek to link their current sense of self from earlier periods, with their cultural and biological heritage” (Brodzinsky, 1987, p. 37). You cannot link up to something that does not exist. This lack of connectedness is a powerful dynamic that is often obfuscated by the conceptual limitations of the grief model. The focus of remediation is important – we have to know if we are dealing with concerns regarding what has happened or concerns regarding what will happen. Diagnosis is an important component in determining appropriate treatment. The more specific the diagnosis, the more focused the treatment. Even if you are aware that the patient has a broken bone, you cannot cure a broken leg by putting an arm in a cast. The dynamics that are triggered by the lack of a “genetic expectancy” can be easily misinterpreted as grief.

I believe that the emotional crises faced by many adopted children in preadolescence and adolescence cannot be fully explained by grief, emotional overlay as a result of a history of ALN, or a combination thereof. I suggest that the devastating impact of the loss of both biological parents at a time prior to achieving adolescence has a significantly different effect on the child, depending on whether the relationship prior to such a loss was sufficient to impart a genetic expectancy. The legacy of genetic expectancy is a valuable asset. There is no way to create a synthetic origin or biological heritage. Do adopted children seek to discover their biological parents to regain what was lost, or to link up with their “cultural and biological heritage” (Brodzinsky, 1987, p.37)? Are they curious about their biological parents or are they curious about themselves? Once the link has been established, is the continued relationship with biological parents of any further practical concern?

In my experience, the dynamic of genetic expectancy is less qualitative than it is quantitative. It does not appear to matter significantly that the ancestor imparting the genetic expectancy is an alcoholic drifter or a college president. Perceptions of self allow one to acknowledge growth from humble beginnings without wounding the ego. Security, the safety net of genetic expectancy, comes from knowing. Insecurity comes from not knowing.


Brodzinsky, D.M. (1987). Adjustment to adoption: A psychosocial perspective. Clinical Psychology Review, 7, 25-47.

Brodzinsky, D.M. & Steiger, C. (1991) Prevalence of adoptees among special education populations. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 24, 484-488.

Dickman, G.E. (1990) Comments on Heshusius [Letter to the Editor]. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 138-140.

Gardner, H. (1982). Developmental Psychology (2nd ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.

Heshusius, L. (1989) The Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, special education, and contours of alternatives: An overview. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 403-415.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.

Price, R.H., Glickstein, M., Horton, D.L., & Bailey, R.H. (1982). Principals of Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Sants, H.J. (1964) Genealogical bewilderment in children with substitute parents.British Journal of Medical Psychology, 37,133-141.

Weinberg, R.A. (1983) A case of misplaced conjunction: Nature or Nurture? Journal of School Psychology, 21(1), 9-12.