Faith, Family, and Special Needs: An Interview with Author David Rizzo

I first wrote about the Rizzo family back in the fall, when their Adaptive First Eucharist Kit was published by Loyola Press. Dave and Mercedes Rizzo, along with their son Brendan, created the kit to teach Reconciliation and First Eucharist to developmentally disabled children using visual and tactile tools. Arising from their experiences teaching these sacraments to their daughter Danielle (who has non-verbal autism), the kit fills an important gap in catechetical ministry. It was piloted at my parish, and I was thrilled to see it reach a wider audience in desperate need of this kind of teaching tool.

When Loyola agreed to to publish the kit, they also requested that Dave write a book about the challenges, techniques, and spirituality of special needs parenting. Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs: How Catholic Parents and Their Kids with Special Needs Can Develop a Richer Spiritual Life is a terrific little book packed with gentle wisdom, hard-earned experience, a deep sense of the spiritual dimension of both the special needs parent, and keen insight into the unique spirituality of developmentally disabled children. Every catechetical program in America needs to give it to teachers involved in special needs ministry, and parents of disabled children will find comfort and guidance in its pages.

I’ve done an interview with Dave for the National Catholic Register, and it’s a corker. I can’t claim any credit for the quality: I just asked some questions, and Dave did the rest. Here’s a bit of it:

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.”

Read the rest.

I’ve been privileged to know this family, and seen their patient (although they would probably say “Not always patient”), skillful parenting of Danielle. She’s a remarkable young lady, and a testament to the wisdom of a loving God who placed her with such a family. God makes no mistakes. The Rizzos, and Danielle in particular, are living witness to the power of grace and love, and I’ve seen the transformative power of that witness in action. Our entire parish benefits from Danielle’s presence. Our pastor must have realized this when he told the Rizzos that they should attend mass as a family, and it didn’t matter if some people were annoyed by her occasional disruptions: this is life, and this is the family of the Church, in all its messiness and with all its challenges. Deal with it, he was saying.

It took a lot of work to help Danielle understand the sacraments enough to make her first confession and receive the eucharist, and when the time came, she understood that what she received was forgiveness, and what she ate was more the mere bread. This precious gift, given by the grace of God through the efforts of determined and loving parents, is a pearl without price.

Danielle Rizzo

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.