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Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs

One of the first impressions I took away from “Spiritually Able” is that it is a very hands-on, cut-to-the-chase book.  Authors David and Mercedes Rizzo, whose daughter, Danielle, is non-verbal and autistic, know that Catholic families like theirs are already very aware of what life with a special needs child is like.  That part doesn’t require an explanation.  What is needed, however, are practical, detailed suggestions for teaching the faith to these special children. This is precisely what the Rizzos set out to do in “Spiritually Able,” and they do it well.

That is not to say that they offer no narrative; both Rizzos speak very movingly about what their lives were like both before and after Danielle was born. (They have two older sons and one younger daughter.)  They are also very honest about their own struggle to come to terms with her disability: “Danielle’s autism has been our greatest challenge in life, but it has also been one of our greatest blessings,” they write.  “It has tested our faith and strengthened it, and it has taught us to trust God even when things turn our far different from what we expected.”  Indeed, readers who do not have a disabled child will still be inspired by the family’s commitment to Danielle, their faith and her religious education.

So following a brief introduction, the book moves quickly into nuts-and-bolts information, becoming a detailed, “how-to” resource for parents concerning the faith education of their special needs child.  While a great deal of that advice revolves around teaching and reinforcing concepts at home, the Rizzos are very clear that their suggestions are meant to complement, not replace, any parish religious education program.  They were lucky enough to have a special needs catechist in their own church who was able to work with Danielle, but for a while they also took advantage of a special program offered at a neighboring Catholic parish.  The rule of thumb, they advise, is for parents to seek out and use whatever resources are available to them in the parishes and places where they live.

“Spiritually Able” covers a wide range of religious topics and experiences, from familiarizing your child with the church building itself, to attendance at Mass, reception of the sacraments, inclusion in parish life, and Christian service.  Each chapter in the book focuses on one theme and follows a similar format: The Rizzos first share their story “to set the stage” and then move into two or three lessons which reinforce the concept or sacrament being taught.  Activities are adaptable and several suggestions are offered for how each can be utilized with children of varying abilities.  Finally, every chapter concludes with suggestions on how to move from the lesson to real life, plus a link to Scripture and a meditation geared toward parents.  To complement the book, the Rizzos have also helped develop special “Adaptive Kits,” which aid catechists and parents with both sacramental preparation and general faith formation.  These, like “Spiritually Able,” are available through Loyola Press.

One more important point should also be mentioned — even those without special needs children in their lives can benefit from reading this book because it helps promote an awareness of what these families encounter every day.  “Few people outside the community of children with special needs and their families understand how much of a challenge it can be,” the Rizzos conclude.  “We applaud the efforts of all parents of children with special needs as they struggle to live an authentic life that honors God and those in their care.”


About the Author:
For David and Mercedes Rizzo, the book, “Spiritually Able” and the “Adaptive Kits” that can be used in conjunction with it, are simultaneously a labor of and lesson in love.  Widely recognized in the world of Catholic bloggers as experts on the topic of working with special needs children and adults, their writing and advice have appeared on sites associated with their publisher, Loyola Press, as well as the popular parenting site www.catholicmom.com.

Although their daughter, Danielle, was certainly the inspiration for this book, they each come from a background which helped prepare them for working with individuals like her.  Mercedes, a certified teacher who has taught in both public and parochial schools, has provided support to children who have individualized education plans; David is a physical therapist who has worked extensively with both adults and children challenged by disabilities.  In addition, he has been a presenter at various religious education congresses as well as The National Catholic Partnership for Disabilities and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership Annual Conference.  

The Rizzos have been married for more than 20 years and have three children in addition to Danielle:  Brendan, Colin and Shannon.  They reside in Marlton, N.J., and are members of St. Isaac Jogues Parish there.
Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester lives and works in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

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