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Medical Conditions Glossary

People feel differently about their ability to parent a child with special needs. What one person considers a major challenge may be normal to another. These feelings are influenced in part by experience and knowledge about particular conditions. Some of the issues to consider when exploring your desire to adopt a child with special needs are:
  • Severity of the condition and whether it is correctable with surgery.
  • Programs or services available in your community for a child with special needs.
  • Short and long term implications for your family, resources for support and counseling (both professional and among your friends, church, or relatives).
  • Insurance coverage.
These definitions are intended to provide brief information about conditions that affect children. They range from nearly insignificant to major challenges. This information is meant to be introductory in nature and to familiarize you with some conditions and concepts. Our sources of information include the Dictionary of Medicine and Nursing and our own experience. We encourage you to get more detailed information on particular conditions that interest you.
Birth Conditions
Central Nervous System
Family History
Infectious Diseases
Birth Conditions:

Albinism:  Partial or total absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes.  Often accompanied by vision loss to some degree.

Cleft lip and palate:  The lip and/or palate not joined at the center during fetal development.  This is corrected by surgery, leaving only a faint scar.  In some cases, several surgeries and speech therapy may be required.

Hyperbilirubinemia:  Excess levels of the pigment bilirubin in the blood that may cause yellowing of the skin called jaundice.  It is usually caused by liver or biliary tract dysfunction.  This condition is common for premature newborns and is treated with light therapy, monitoring and time. 

Premature:  Infant born before the thirty-seventh week of gestation.  Often accompanied by low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds at birth).  Premature children are frequently developmentally delayed for their chronological age early in life, but often catch up as they get older.

Respiratory Distress Syndrome:  A condition in which a newborn has difficulty breathing, occurring most commonly in premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed.  Respiratory Distress Syndrome may be treated with medication, oxygen therapy, and/or a ventilator.  Also called Hyaline Membrane Disease.

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Thalassemia:  A hereditary form of anemia which interferes with the normal production of hemoglobin.  People with mild thalassemia often do not have any symptoms.  More serious cases may cause symptoms of anemia.  In these cases, blood transfusions are sometimes required.

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Central Nervous System:

Autism:  A mental disorder which impairs a person’s ability to relate to others and affects how she or he perceives and processes sensory information.  Autism is a lifelong condition; people with autism can benefit from therapy and sometimes medication.

Cerebral Palsy:  A group of motor disorders caused by brain injury or abnormal brain development in utero, at birth, or within the first 2-3 years of life.  There are three major types of cerebral palsy: spastic (tightening of affected muscles without the ability to relax them), athetoid (purposeless, uncontrollable movements and muscle tension) and atactic (abnormal body movements affecting the trunk, hands, arms and legs).  Although cerebral palsy is not correctable, it can be treated with physical therapy, medication, and/or surgery. 

Hydrocephalus:  Enlarged head due to abnormal accumulation of fluid in cavities in the brain.  Can be surgically treated. 

Microcephaly:  Small size of the head in relation to the rest of the body.  May result in developmental delay (especially in the areas of speech and motor skills), mental retardation or seizures.

Neurofibromatosis:  A genetic disorder causing benign tumors to grow along various types of nerves.  Bone, muscle and skin may also be affected. 

Polio:  A viral disease that affects the central nervous system.  May cause paralysis or muscle weakness.

Spina Bifida:  Condition occurring when the bones or vertebrae of the spinal column surrounding the spinal cord do not close.  Part of the spinal cord and/or the meninges may protrude.  Mild forms of spina bifida usually do not require treatment.  Treatment for more severe forms may include surgery, physical therapy, braces, etc.

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Developmental Delay:  A child with a developmental delay does not achieve certain skills as quickly as expected.  Developmental delays occur for a variety of reasons including limited stimulation, medical problems, premature birth, or genetic defects.  Many children overcome their developmental delays, some with the help of speech therapy, physical therapy, or special education.

Down Syndrome:  Congenital condition characterized by certain physical malformations and some degree of mental retardation. 

Failure to Thrive:  Physical and developmental delay in infants and young children.  Can be caused by a physical illness or psychosocial factors such as lack of stimulation or care. 

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:  Mental and physical abnormalities caused by the biological mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.  Characteristics may include prenatal and postnatal growth deficiency, irritability in infancy, hyperactivity in childhood, congenital heart disease, and/or mental retardation. 

Hyperactivity:  Abnormally increased activity.  Commonly refers to a group of characteristics including constant activity, easy distractibility, impulsiveness, and/or inability to concentrate.

Learning Disability:  Impaired ability to learn, not related to intelligence.  May affect a person’s ability in the areas of listening, speaking, reading, writing or mathematics. 

Mental Retardation:  Below average general intellectual functioning, can be mild or severe.  Although mental retardation is not correctable, people who are mentally retarded often benefit from special education and training. 

Malnutrition:  Poor nutrition caused by improper diet or a defective metabolism.  Severe or chronic malnutrition in children may cause cognitive and/or growth delays.

Marasmus:  Progressive wasting of the body caused by insufficient nutrition or malabsorption of food.  Occurs mostly in the first year of life and often results in growth retardation and cognitive delays.

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Gastrointestinal Disorders:  Disorders related to the stomach and intestines.  May refer to a variety of conditions including chronic diarrhea, hernias, malabsorption of dietary nutrients, etc.


All adopted children are separated from their biological parents.  Most will also experience the loss of other maternal figures like a foster mother or special caretaker.  This change has an effect upon every child.  We encourage you to learn about the issues of separation and attachment.

Emotional Problems:  Encompasses a wide variety of issues, including anxiety, depression, attachment disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, etc.  Emotional problems may be the result of events in a child’s life such as abuse, neglect, or lack of stimulation.  They may also be caused by physiological factors, such as a chemical imbalance. 

Physical and sexual abuse:  Our experience is that physical and sexual abuse are not as commonly reported overseas as they are in the U.S.  We disclose what is known, but parents need to understand that not all information is known.  Some officials may be reluctant to disclose a history of sexual abuse for fear of how this will reflect on the country.

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Family History:

Family Background:  Significant medical or social history in the biological family.  Holt may not have information about a child’s family background and any information we do have is often limited.

Incest:  When a child’s birth parents are biologically related, the child was conceived by incest.  There is potential for genetic problems depending on closeness of blood relationship between the parents.  Most problems are evident early in the child’s development.

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Genital malformation:  Genital malformation occurs when the child’s genitals do not develop normally.  Conditions include ambiguous genitalia, hypospadias, undescended testes, adrenal anomaly, etc.

Hypospadias:  A developmental anomaly in which the urinary tract opening is not at the tip of the penis.  Some cases do not need treatment, others can be surgically corrected.

Kidney malfunction/disease:  The kidneys do not function properly.  Can range from minor to severe.

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Many institutionalized children have recurring ear infections or otitis media. This can lead to perforated eardrums which are surgically correctible.  Most children have normal hearing.  Permanent hearing loss and deafness are rare.

Hearing Loss/Deafness:  Partial or complete loss of the sense of hearing.

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Heart murmur:  Any sound in the region of the heart other than normal heart sounds.  May be indicative of narrowed or improperly closed heart valves. Many heart murmurs are “innocent” or “functional” and are not associated with heart disease.

Congenital heart disease:  A structural defect of the heart and/or great vessels that is present at birth.  Some defects may correct themselves without surgical intervention.  Others require surgical correction.  There are several forms of congenital heart disease, including:

  • Atrial or Ventricular Septal Defects:  A hole between the upper (atrial) or lower (ventricular) chambers of the heart.  These defects sometimes close on their own, but often require open heart surgery.  After the defect has been closed, there is usually no need for further surgery or activity restrictions.
  • Patent Ductus Arteriosus:  An abnormal opening between the aorta and the pulmonary artery after birth.  Sometimes closes on its own, but can also be surgically corrected with an excellent prognosis.
  • Tetralogy of Fallot:  A combination of four heart defects: ventricular septal defect, pulmonary stenosis, a displaced aorta and abnormal enlargement of the right ventricle.  Usually accompanied by cyanosis (bluish tint of the skin due to low levels of oxygen in the blood).  Other symptoms often include slow development, poor eating, and shortness of breath during exercise.  Surgical correction is always required and several surgeries may be necessary.

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Infectious Diseases:

Hepatitis B:  An infectious virus that affects the liver.  Many people with hepatitis B are carriers, meaning they have no symptoms of the disease but they can pass it on to others.  If the virus becomes active, liver damage can result.  There is a vaccine to prevent hepatitis B infection.

Hepatitis C:  A viral disease of the liver.  The infection is often mild with no symptoms, but cirrhosis can result.  There is no vaccination for hepatitis C. 

Tuberculosis:  An infectious, inflammatory, chronic disease that most often affects the lungs. 

Venereal disease:  Sexually transmitted diseases.  Children are screened with a VDRL test and treated if necessary.

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Arthrogryposis:  Multiple joint contractures affecting the range of motion in the wrists, hands, elbows, shoulders, hips and/or feet.  In mild cases only a few joints may be affected and the range of motion may be nearly normal.  Physical and occupational therapy often helps improve muscle strength and increase the range of motion.  Surgery may also be necessary.

Atresia:  Absence or closure of a normal body opening, such as an ear, often treated with surgery.

Clubfoot:  A condition in which the foot is twisted out of normal position.  Milder cases can be treated with casts or splints, while more severe cases may require surgery. 

Congenital hip dislocation:  A condition caused when the socket of the hip does not develop properly, causing the top of the femur to slip out easily.  May be treated with casts, braces, and/or surgery.

Rickets:  A condition in infancy and childhood caused by a deficiency of vitamin D.  May affect the ossification of bone. 

Paralysis:  Loss or impairment of motor function.  Paraplegia refers to paralysis of both legs.  Quadriplegia refers to paralysis of both arms and legs.

Osteogenesis imperfecta:  An inherited condition in which the bones are abnormally brittle and prone to fracture. 

Webbed fingers/toes:  Fingers or toes that are connected by a membrane or other tissue.  Usually correctable with surgery.

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Many institutionalized children have minor skin conditions such as lice, nits, scabies, fungus infections and impetigo.  These conditions are difficult to control in institutional settings.  Treatment is fairly simple.

Birthmarks:  Blemishes or spots on the skin that are present at birth.  Some fade over time or are not noticeable, others may require surgery.

Nevus:  A malformation of the skin not caused by any external factor.  Nevi vary in size, color, and thickness and can usually be surgically removed.

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Intestinal parasites are to be expected for all children from developing countries. Stools are tested and parasites eliminated through medication.

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A convulsion or an attack of epilepsy.  Can range from a single transitory seizure with no clear cause to frequent, repetitive convulsions that require medical treatment.

Absence seizures:  An epileptic seizure where there is a momentary break in the stream of action or thought.  This loss of awareness usually lasts only a few seconds after which the person resumes their activity, often without realizing they have had a seizure.  Also called petit mal seizures.

Febrile seizures:  Seizures occurring in children who have a high fever.  Usually last from one to three minutes.  Febrile seizures are not a form of epilepsy.

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Crossed eyes:  Deviation of the eyes that cannot be overcome, also called strabismus.  Eye deviation in infants is common and often corrects itself.  Persistent crossed eyes may be corrected with eye patches and possibly surgery.

Nystagmus:  An involuntary, rapid, rhythmic movement of the eyes.

Photophobia:  Abnormal visual sensitivity to light.

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