What I Learned: Raising a Special Needs Third Culture Kid

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What I Learned: Raising a Special Needs Third Culture Kid

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (there is one more scheduled post coming up and then, unless I hear from you, the series will close, but if you have an essay in the future that you feel might be a good fit, feel free to contact me).

Today’s What I Learned post comes from MaDonna Maurer (who wrote about being married to a TCK for the Painting Pictures series), writing about raising a daughter with mental and physical disabilities in Taiwan. Can I just say how much I love this post?


Diversity seems to flow easily inside the doors of an international school. Many have called these walled-establishments little United Nations. It’s no wonder they have this description. Once you step through the doors you see and hear the various cultures that make up our world. The expat community lends itself to diversity, but once you exit what I will call the “expat bubble” you’ll discover that the only diversity you may find is yourself.

I have found this to be true here in Taiwan. Among the expat community I know how to float in and out of conversations. I understand the lingo, the hardships, and the coming and goings of the community. Learning how to function in the community of the culture you are living in can take some time, especially if you have a child with special needs.

My daughter was diagnosed when she was ten-months old with Cri-du-Chat Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes mental and physical disabilities. Along with the diagnosis, she was given a feeding tube – overnight we became a different family. We were already living in mainland China, and amazingly we were encouraged by all the health professionals and family to return. After a few years we moved to Taipei where she would have better access to therapy. Moving to Taipei, though still took time to adjust, was a smoother transition just because of the healthcare system.

My daughter is ten-years old now and no longer has a feeding tube. We still travel between Taiwan and Germany or Taiwan and the US, depending on the year. In these ten years I have learned a few things about traveling with a child with special needs and about life in general.

madonna maurer2

1. I am not alone. First, we are not the only people that live overseas with a child with special needs. There are others. Second, which isn’t too surprising, but since the diagnosis it seems that I just “see” others with special needs. I know they were there before, but I believe that God has made me more aware – especially here in Asia where disability is more often hidden.

2. Give Grace I know how easy it is to be offended by certain words and odd looks. I know how angry I can get by comments made about someone with special needs. I can become that protective mama bear ready to strike out at anyone – but God has been teaching me (notice, I’m still learning!) to give grace. Sometimes that is a silent prayer, other times it is quietly in love telling the person what their words mean. I’ve found that most have no clue and are truly apologetic for it. I’ve also found that some questions are just purely that: a question. They just want to know, but didn’t phrase it quite right (sometimes this is a culture-clash). I’m learning to answer with grace. Do I get it right every time? No, but I’m in the process of it…

madonna maurer1

3. The beauty of a smile Having someone say hello to my daughter and to talk to her, not me, is a HUGE gift. I’ve come to realize that people with special needs want to be talked to directly – even if they can’t respond back. When we stop and speak (just say Hi!) to someone with special needs we recognize that they are human – not just a statue that takes up space. And the impact you have on the parent by that small act of kindness speaks volumes. I know from experience.

4. Churches are empty The most noticeable issue I see in most churches is what I don’t see. I don’t see too many people with special needs in church. This is something I’ve seen in every country I’ve visited. Why is this? I don’t have a researched answer, but from my experience it seems that people do not know what to do with my family. They want to help, but not sure how. They feel unqualified to teach a child with special needs. The congregation may feel that the person is too disruptive…read #3 again, they are fearfully and wonderfully made, too (Ps. 139:14)!

Diversity is so much more than the color of ones skin or the various cultures of the world. As I’m living this expat life, I’m learning more about what that means as a family with disabilities. I could easily say that my daughter is teaching me, but really it is God teaching me through her about the special needs community and my response to his diverse world.


maDonna MaurerYou can read more from MaDonna Maurer on her blog www.raisingtcks.com and find her on Twitter 


  1. Sally June 3, 2014 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    It is wonderful to read MaDonna’s thoughts about her family and life. As her fifth grade teacher and friend, I am very proud of her.

    • MaDonna June 4, 2014 at 10:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks Mrs. Minnick for taking time to read and comment. What an encouragement! I still remember all the great things we did in 5th grade!

  2. Corrie June 3, 2014 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    This is so great to read – I have a special needs daughter, although not a TCK and have experieneced much of that MaDonna Talks about – This was a big encouragment to me today. I travel and work with TCK’s and my special needs daughter came on a trip with me last year and loved it. She would love to go again – this is encouraging me to consider it as an option for her.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • MaDonna June 4, 2014 at 10:33 pm - Reply

      Hi Corrie!
      I’m so glad you were encouraged by something I wrote. That is great that you took your daughter with you on your last trip. I know it can be challenging, but it can be so enriching for you all involved. May your next trip be a great one as well!

  3. Crissie June 3, 2014 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    This is excellent. We also raised a Special Needs TCK, overseas for the first 12 years of his life. Too many ‘Ebenezers’ to recount affirmed our remaining on the field until God redirected us.

    But, one (among many things) I thought at the time was that surely it was significant for the people we lived amongst to see a foreign family struggle with obvious challenges, to share in prayer with some frightening situations, and perhaps even to begin to perceive those with disabilities differently because of our family.

    We feel (as did our son’s US neurologist) that our son exceeded what might have been their expectations, and his life was forever enriched by our time overseas.

    • MaDonna June 4, 2014 at 10:35 pm - Reply

      WOW, thank you so much for writing. I have days where I wonder about what we are doing, but I do see her improving all the time. You have encouraged me today, really. We hear the question all the time, “Why are you here?” or “Why are you not living in the US?” It’s nice to hear some positive results. Thank you!

  4. Whitney Conard June 5, 2014 at 9:08 am - Reply

    This is such a great encouragement. One of the workers in our city has a daughter with Down’s Syndrome. You rarely see Cambodians with that because most die at an early age. A lot of people don’t know how to interact with her, and I know it’s hard for them at times. But it also really enriches their lives and their faith.

    Rachel, I tried contacting you via your form about an essay submission but never heard from you. Should I resubmit? Thanks!

    • MaDonna June 5, 2014 at 1:54 pm - Reply

      Thanks Whitney! I can only imagine in Cambodia. When we lived in other closed countries we didn’t see many children with special needs because for one, they were hidden or given up or…. It was an embarrassment to the family to have “bad blood.” We were definitely thought “strange” when they realized. I had to learn (still learning) to give grace to the uneducated…

    • Rachel Pieh Jones June 6, 2014 at 9:07 am - Reply

      Oh no! Thanks for saying something, I wonder if something is wrong with the backend of the blog, there have been a couple other issues too. I will send you an email and you can the use that address to submit something, I’d love to hear from you Whitney!

  5. […] I’ve had the great opportunity to write about raising a special needs child for two different websites. The first is about what I’ve learned raising a TCK with special needs. To read more about it click here. […]

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