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Tony Rossi

Radio Host/Producer

Special Needs Kids Are Spiritually Able
June 28, 2015

“Parents of children with special needs should realize that even though they didn’t expect to have a child with special needs, that was the child God gave them—and God doesn’t make mistakes.”

David Rizzo spoke those words to me because they highlighted a lesson that he and his wife Mercedes learned firsthand when their daughter Danielle was diagnosed with autism at age four. Not only did this affect how they would give her a regular education, but also how they would raise her in the Catholic faith which means so much to them. There wasn’t any material at the time that could point them in the right direction, so the Rizzos paved new ground themselves. To share what they’ve learned, they recently authored the book “Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs.”

During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” David and Mercedes told me that the odds of Danielle sitting through Mass and receiving the sacraments seemed “insurmountable” at times. Thankfully, their parish was “welcoming and willing to help us.”

When I asked them what priests and parishioners in general can do to enhance that spirit of welcome, David said, “They need to recognize that the parents of children with special needs who are coming to their church want the parishioners to feel comfortable around their children. [We] also want them to know that we’re not being bad parents when our children [misbehave] or make noise or don’t seem focused. That’s part of the disability; it’s not a sign of their irreverence. That gives us the opportunity for the child to learn the expected behaviors. And they will because children with disabilities do learn. It is possible for them to learn to sit through Mass, participate, and become an active participant in the faith.”

One of the methods that helped Danielle was reinforcement learning, which involves giving a child something they like when they do something right. It can be as simple as verbal praise, but it works. In addition, the Rizzos created a booklet called “My Picture Missal” because “kids with autism do really well with pictures. The first picture on the page was the picture of what you should be doing with your body, whether you’re standing, sitting or kneeling. Then the second picture was what’s going on at the altar at that moment. That gives the child the visual cue for what’s expected of them. Once that worked for Danielle and clicked, suddenly she realized, ‘I’m here for a reason, there’s something important happening.’”

Getting to that point with Danielle took a lot of trial and error over several years, but the hard work paid off and she was able to receive her first Holy Communion at the traditional age.

David and Mercedes have learned a lot from being the parents of a special needs child and they wouldn’t change a thing. Mercedes said, “I’ve developed an even deeper sense of compassion and I think that has also spread to our other children.”

David concludes, “I would never have expected myself to be the father of a child with special needs. I never would have placed myself in that position. But once I was in that position, I found out that God really knew best, because here was an opportunity for me to develop into the best person that I could develop into. [Taking] an active role in Danielle’s life sent me in so many directions. That’s the biggest life lesson: when you find yourself in a situation, you have to trust that you’re there for a reason.”


For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, PRACTICING PATIENCE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: