Faith, Family and Special Needs

July 15 issue interview with David Rizzo, author of Faith, Family, and Children With Special Needs: How Catholic Parents and Their Kids With Special Needs Can Develop a Richer Spiritual Life.

We first spoke with David Rizzo last year, in our article "Catechesis for the Autistic," when Loyola Press published the "Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit" created by Dave and family to prepare daughter Danielle, who has nonverbal autism, for her sacraments. It’s the first teaching tool of its kind, and it fills an important gap in special-needs catechesis.

Now, Dave has followed up with a book that explores the challenges and joys of special-needs parenting from a Catholic perspective. In Faith, Family, and Children With Special Needs: How Catholic Parents and Their Kids With Special Needs Can Develop a Richer Spiritual Life (Loyola, 2012), Rizzo offers hard-won advice to parents about living and teaching the faith with a cognitively disabled child — and the unexpected grace that comes with the challenge.

What was your initial response to God when you learned of Danielle’s autism, and how has that response changed over time?
At first I was angry at God. Danielle’s autism seemed like a cruel joke. I couldn’t find any meaning in it: Why would God do this? I felt like I had been in a boxing match with God, and he had delivered the knockout punch. After that, I kept holding out for some miraculous intervention, and I remember taking Danielle to be prayed over, so she might learn how to talk or be cured of her autism.

But it was during one of these prayer services that I discovered the one prayer that made sense: I prayed for Danielle to become the person God wanted her to be. Now, my wife and I have both come to see Danielle’s absence of words as something akin to God’s silence. In this silence, one has time to feel and accept the reality of the situation; one has an opportunity to come to peace with it. Also, Mercedes and I have seen how much good Danielle accomplishes because of who she is. We have seen so many people touched by her. There is remarkable healing in it.

In your experience, how do people with cognitive disabilities experience and express the life of the Spirit?
They are very open to the Spirit in that many have learned to compensate for their deficits in language by becoming more reliant on visual, tactile, kinesthetic and other types of information to make sense out of the world and express themselves. Often, this leads to a more intuitive and spontaneous approach to life.

Think of how much spontaneous energy children like my daughter Danielle show … the joy they can show.

It’s almost like King David and his dance of joy and praise. Of course people with disabilities can also show quite a lot of negative emotions, too. But so much of the time it’s positive and joyous. People with disabilities can often be very loving, too. Danielle used to come up to us and take our hands to squeeze her head as a sign of her love for us. Sometimes she asks for a kiss using a picture icon, her electronic speech device or sign language.

How can we best communicate the faith to those with special needs?
I talk a lot about this in my book, Faith, Family, and Children With Special Needs. You can use anything really that isn’t based solely in language. Picture presentations work really well. Puzzles and matching are motivating and familiar ways for kids with special needs to learn any kind of material, including religious. Association with familiar and concrete things is very helpful.

A good example is relating the doctrine of God as Trinity to the child’s own family. One of the best ways my wife, Mercedes, and I helped Danielle learn about Jesus and Mary was to relate this to Danielle’s experience with Mercedes, to the love she has for her. We taught some of the events in the life of Jesus and Mary by taking Danielle and her sister Shannon through the lovely Rosary garden at the Cistercian monastery in Mt. Laurel, N.J. They loved walking through the scenes of the mysteries, with the life-size stone statues there.

The sacraments are a terrific way to communicate the faith to our kids precisely because of the visual, tangible and experiential nature of the sacraments. They are a visible sign of the invisible God. Also, as you know, Mercedes and I, along with our oldest son Brendan, developed the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit to help prepare children with special needs learn what they need for first Communion.

How does our experience with this kind of catechizing and parenting help our own faith to grow?
That’s a great question. I figured that if I was to teach Danielle, then I would need to discover the faith in a visual, associational and intuitive way, too. I started to explore the sacraments, the liturgy, prayer, and even the world around us in a silent way. I paid attention to the sights and sounds … the feel. I felt more than I thought. I wasn’t so quick to put everything into thoughts and words. I tried to adopt something of Danielle’s silence.

What I found when I shut up was God’s presence. I tell a story in the book about how even a walk with Danielle and Shannon by the detention basin in our neighborhood, seeing the ducks and a great blue heron, became an opportunity to experience God and his goodness. This approach allowed me to enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus and his incarnation.

What in particular about the Catholic faith is either harder or easier to convey to those with cognitive disabilities?
One thing to keep in mind is that every person with a cognitive disability is different, a unique person made in the image and likeness of God. Some can understand a lot. Others may only understand in a limited way. However, each child is capable of learning to be the person God is calling them to be.

I’ve found doctrine can be very difficult to teach, so it’s best to adopt the K.I.S.S. principle: "Keep It Simple Sweetheart." Modify and simplify to match the child’s capacity. It can be difficult to teach compassion to the needs of others, especially when the child has autism. But there are ways to do this. It’s difficult, but not impossible.

I think it’s easiest to teach participation in the liturgy, the sacraments and incorporating prayer and acknowledgement of God into the rhythms of the child’s life, such as praying grace before meals, etc. Now, higher-functioning kids, say those with Asperger’s syndrome, may actually get into and understand the more complex theology and philosophy.

What graces do you find as the parent of a child with autism?
Well, one is the ability to find joy in life’s simple moments that many other parents take for granted. For instance, Danielle recently called me "Dad" for the first time using her electronic speech device. She was nearly 13 years old at the time. Or even just getting through a routine dental appointment without problems — such moments come wrapped in praise.

Thomas L. McDonald blogs at