Teaching faith lessons to your special needs child or grandchild can be a tough, isolating experience if you don’t have the guidance and encouragement of wise and experienced friends. A new book by David and Mercedes Rizzo, Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs, is a big help. The Rizzo’s latest effort combines personal stories with tips and practical advice, based on their own journey with their autistic daughter, Danielle.
I asked the couple to share a few insights and a bit of their story.
Me: David and Mercedes, you’ve created wonderful kits for helping special needs children understand the Sacraments, and you’ve written about your spiritual journey. What was the impetus behind this new book?
D&M: It was important for us to tell our story and show that life doesn’t end when you become the parent of a child with special needs. In fact, your family can live a full and joy-filled life.
Me: So often, the best resources acknowledge that our experience of faith involves the paradox of embracing the Cross and finding joy and meaning through suffering. This mystery seems to be at the core of everything you have accomplished, as joy-filled parents and as the designers of some extremely insightful and creative resources for teaching faith to special needs children. Give some background and tell us about your new book.
D&M: Sure! When our daughter, Danielle, was diagnosed with autism, it was hard to see how this could be a part of God’s plan for her or for our family. She was unable to say her name or any other words, and her behaviors were extremely challenging. It was hard to find any meaning in it at all, but over the years, our family has learned to see the activity of God in our lives, as we raise a child with a serious disability. We have learned to see this as an unexpected blessing and an opportunity for ministry. Our new book, Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs, tells how we came to see God’s action in our lives. It presents lessons that parents can follow to teach their children with special needs about God and the Church.
Me: Your book is packed with practical insights based on the tough, but rewarding road you walk with your own special-needs child. What kinds of lessons are included?
D&M: Looking back at our experiences with Danielle, we can see how many teachable moments there have been. These include opportunities for learning about God, preparing for the sacraments, fostering compassion and Christian service, and broadening participation in the parish and Church. There are lessons that deal with celebrations, and also with sad events like the death of grandparents. Children with autism and other special needs may have trouble understanding these things, so we have outlined steps parents can take to help their kids develop a faith-filled perspective in life.
Me: This is all so important and critically needed. How about a quick tip on maintaining parental well-being?
D&M: Raising a child with a disability can be hard on parents so we’ve included a chapter that deals with self-care and strengthening the marriage bond. It’s important that parents find ways they can pursue their own hobbies and interests, or even just find an opportunity to pray and deepen their own relationship with God.
Me: Do you have a favorite scripture?
D&M: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Me: That’s one of my favorites, too! Thanks so much for your witness.
Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs, by David and Mercedes Rizzo, is available through Loyola Press.