Updated: Apr 15
When our daughter Danielle was ten years old she participated in the Special Olympics gymnastics program. One of her favorite pieces of equipment was the balance beam. Proudly, we watched her performing her routine at the summer games. She would proceed cautiously across the beam, each of her steps carefully placed. There wasn’t much room for error as the beam was only four inches wide. Sitting there with our three other kids, it struck us that we were on a balance beam of our own, our steps no less carefully placed.
Having our whole family there that day was unusual because everyone’s obligations and schedules were so busy. We have four children and there were times when we felt overwhelmed trying to keep up with it all. There were so many events in those days including baseball, piano, scouts, homework, religious education, and work obligations. On top of this busy schedule, there were therapy and medical appointments for Danielle because of her autism.
It wasn’t always a balance beam. When we were newly married things were much simpler for us. However, as our family grew, so did the number of commitments and responsibilities.
Having a child with autism made this even more difficult. While the other kids learned to be independent tying their shoes, brushing their teeth, and making breakfast, Danielle continued to need assistance in all those areas and in many others.
Danielle’s needs often took precedence out of necessity, trumping the needs of our other kids. She needed vigilant supervision just to maintain her safety. This was exhausting, and we were concerned that we were not giving equal, fair and balanced attention to all of our children.
We needed to find a way to spread our attention more equally among our four children. The following are some of the things we did to achieve this balance.
One of the things we did early on was to make sure at least one parent attended big events without Danielle being there so that our undivided focus would be on the appropriate child. Often when one of our children had a school concert or performance, Mercedes would attend the daytime performance generally reserved for students, faculty, and anyone who could not make it in the evening. David would attend the main performance later that night. The whole family would go out for ice cream afterwards.
Another place we were able to balance our attention was at sporting events. For instance, during Colin’s baseball games we’d alternate innings so that one of us was watching Danielle while the other was actually able to pay attention to the game. Since we alternated after each inning, both of us felt like we were there cheering him on. We used this strategy at Brendan’s and Shannon’s events too.
It was very important for us to find ways to spend one on one time with each of the kids. Scouting gave us many opportunities to spend quality time one on one under the stars with both Brendan and Shannon. Sometimes we went rafting and canoeing together. We spent time around the campfire and in tents.
Still another chance for one on one time was the occasional trip to the nail salon where Mercedes and Shannon enjoyed some pampering with manicures and pedicures. Sometimes, mother and daughter would enjoy shopping, that favorite pastime of women and girls everywhere.
One of the best things we learned was how to share common interests with our kids. Shannon loves the theatre. It turns out that David was heavily involved in theatre in high school and college. So it was only natural that they performed together last summer in a community theatre production. They both had a blast!
While we were writing this article, we asked each of our kids if there was anything that bothered them, or if they felt short-changed, because so much of our attention had to go to Danielle. Our youngest, Shannon, said we never bound her photographs in an album like we did for the others. We just never got around to it. Colin’s and Brendan’s response was that they hadn’t missed out on anything. However, when we pressed the matter, Colin told us he remembered that sometimes we would leave his basketball games because Danielle did not like the sound of the buzzer, and that he was sometimes kept out of the basement because Danielle’s therapy was taking place there. When we asked them what they had gained by the experience, Brendan, Colin and Shannon each told us they had learned more understanding, tolerance and compassion for people with disabilities.
We did not receive perfect 10s but judging from our children’s responses, we didn’t do half bad!
David and Mercedes write and speak from a faith perspective as parents of a child with autism. They are available to speak, and have appeared on radio and other media. Visit DavidAndMercedesRizzo.com to learn more. Follow them on Facebook at Autism With The Rizzos. Authors of Praying For Your Special Needs Child, (Word Among Us Press) and Spiritually Able and The Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit (Loyola Press).