Last summer I wrote this story about David, Mercedes, and Brendan Rizzo and their work to create a unique set of tools for teaching special needs children about the sacraments. Their work was piloted at my parish (St. Isaac Jogues in Marlton, New Jersey), so I got to see it develop from a homemade project to a slick professional package published by Loyola Press.
Here’s an excerpt from my original article in the National Catholic Register:
The Rizzo family of Marlton, N.J., had to work harder than most to prepare their daughter Danielle for first Communion. Dave and Mercedes knew Danielle would never quite understand the sacrament the way other children did because she has autism.
“It was very important to us that she made her sacraments around the same age as the other children,” said Mercedes. “At the same time, it was important that she was really ready.”
The only available catechetical materials were very verbal and included complex concepts that could never properly be conveyed to someone with autism. “They weren’t geared towards children like Danielle who are not verbal,” explained Dave. “She required something very concrete like she used in other areas of learning. Children with autism and similar disabilities are very pictoral in the way they think. Their understanding is visual, not language-based.”
So the parents developed their own methods and materials for teaching the sacraments. This inspired their eldest son, Brendan, to focus his Eagle Scout project on creating a collection of autism teaching resources for their parish, St. Isaac Jogues. The heart of those resources is a set of visual teaching tools that has now been published by Loyola Press as an “Adaptive First Eucharist Kit.”
Dave has written a book to help guide parents through the difficult task of parenting special needs children, and passing along the faith. It’s called Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs: How Catholic Parents and Their Kids with Special Needs Can Develop a Richer Spiritual Life, and it’s out now from Loyola Press.
Here’s how the publisher describes it:
In Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs, David Rizzo—whose 12-year-old daughter has autism—offers great hope for parents who want to grow in their own spirituality while helping their children with disabilities experience God in a deeper way.
Throughout the book, Rizzo’s abiding though sometimes tested Catholic faith is made clear as he thoughtfully explains everything from the practical, such as how parents can maintain sanity during Mass when the child with special needs becomes disruptive, to the profound, such as how parents can understand God in a way that is relevant to their predicament. At other times, Rizzo’s advice is intended to help the child grow in his or her own faith, as when he explains how kids with special needs can participate meaningfully in the Eucharist.
By looking at the big-picture issues of faith while also providing specific tips to nurture spiritual growth in parents and in their children with disabilities, Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs will serve as a highly useful and inspiring resource for anyone in the community of faith who interacts with children with disabilities.