What Parents of a Child with Special Needs Would Tell a Parish Audience

by David and Mercedes Rizzo

This Sunday we returned home from Mass, and it was a peaceful and refreshing experience. Some parishioners might assume that at this point in our lives—with our four children in college, high school, and middle school—that this would be the norm, not the exception. However, when parents have a child with autism or other serious disability, some days it’s all we can do just to get to Mass. We make this a priority in our lives, but it can be hard.

Often it’s the things the parishioners cannot see that make it so hard. We might have spent the night before calling poison control to deal with a possible ingestion of cleaning products. Fortunately, this sort of thing happens infrequently. Other scenarios are more common, such as when our child with autism cannot fall asleep till 3:00 A.M., and her sister is scheduled to serve that morning at the early Mass. It’s the same kind of sleep deprivation one faces when raising an infant, except that it’s been going on for 14 years. It takes a lot of commitment to bring our family to Mass under such circumstances, and we would like parishioners to know this.

Also, we’d like parishioners to know that if they encounter a family like ours in the pew, and something just doesn’t seem right—perhaps we seem too noisy, or maybe our teenaged child is rocking back and forth—they should consider the possibility that the child might have special needs and is not being irreverent or behaving badly. For instance, a couple of weeks ago our daughter Danielle gave a loud approximation of the word peace to an adjacent parishioner at Mass. The parishioner withdrew her hand and gave an audible sigh of disapproval. We were unprepared for this parishioner’s reaction. This was the very first time Danielle had been able to vocalize an approximation of the word peace, and she did so at the appropriate place in the liturgy. This parishioner almost made us forget what a milestone it was and certainly put a damper on our joy as we prepared to receive Holy Communion.

There are many challenges facing special children and their families. Mass is so very important to all of us, because it is one of the places we encounter not only God but also the community of faith. Parishioners can make a big difference by welcoming our children and standing with us as we explore the great mysteries of that faith together.

David and Mercedes Rizzo

David and Mercedes Rizzo

Dave and Mercedes Rizzo developed picture-based materials and activities to explain the sacraments to Danielle to help prepare her for Holy Communion

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