Monday, July 23, 2012

A ‘special needs’ daughter teaches her dad By Jason Shanks *

By Jason Shanks *

I never thought I would have to teach my daughter how to walk. Sure, I thought about being ready to catch her when she tried her first uncertain steps, but not about showing her how to bend a knee, gain balance, straighten her feet and properly fall. I had visions of showing my daughter how to ride a bike, shoot a basket, and tie her shoes, but never how to move her legs.

My daughter, Nora, has a disorder that distorts communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. She is 4 years old and not walking or talking. Developmentally she is the equivalent of a 1-year-old.

Our Catholic theology teaches us that evil is a privation of good. Bad health is a privation of health. I know that my daughter was not created by God with a brain disorder; however, I believe he can and is using her special needs to teach me about himself. From this perspective, I am not fixing her; she is fixing me! In that sense, she is not a girl with special needs, she is a girl with special gifts. 

Here are three things I have learned from Nora about how to view God and life in general, with an appropriate Scripture passage:

Her laugh stops our world (1 Thess 5:16-18). Nora might do something one second and you might not see her do it again, at least for a while. My wife and I learned this early on. With Nora, the brain waves might line up for a split second and she might clap her hands, but it could be months (if ever) before we see her repeat this skill. You can expect a normal developing child to perform an action, gain a skill and repeat it. Nora has taught us to appreciate the little things! I can remember when Nora first laughed. Something tickled her fancy and she laughed and laughed. We stopped everything we were doing and just watched her laugh, with tears in our eyes. We knew it might be months, if ever, before we got to see it again. She has taught us about what is really important in life and to give God thanks in all things!

God is patient with us (2 Peter 3:9). In many ways our spiritual condition is much like the physical condition of a child with special needs. We too need assistance and help. Just as I have learned to be more patient with Nora’s growth and development, God, too, is patient with us. Just as I expect Nora to keep working at it, God wants us to keep striving towards holiness, knowing that he is there to take our hands and help us walk closer and closer toward him. Nora has many specialists to help her development; we too have the lives of the saints as models and inspiration to get us towards heaven. Nora has gait trainers and braces for her legs; we too have tools like the sacraments, the rosary, and the Bible. When Nora falls, we are there to pick her up and give her a hug. Likewise, God is there for us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Fixate on Jesus (Proverbs 4:25-27). My daughter for years has been fixating on a wooden block. She will look at it and look at it for hours upon hours. I often wonder what life would be like if we had that focus on Jesus Christ. What if we truly took the time to spend with him, adoring him in prayer and devotion. I am reminded of Peter looking at Jesus as he stood on water. Once he took his eyes off of Jesus, he sank (Matt 14:22-33). We too, like Nora with the wooden block, need to keep our gaze on Christ, who died for us. Reflecting on Christ’s great love for us on the cross, may we be constantly be drawn closer and closer to him, leading us towards the Triune love of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, our divine family.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture comes from the Parable of the Prodigal Son: “So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” It has always struck me that God would run to us. What initiative! What love! In the person of Jesus Christ, he does just that.

When I think of my daughter Nora, and her struggle with walking, the idea that God would run while she is still a long way off gives the passage new meaning for me, and great comfort!

Jason Shanks is the Cabinet Secretary of Evangelization and Parish Life for the Diocese of Toledo, which oversees the Office of Marriage and Family Life. He has been married for eight years to his wife, Melissa, and is the proud father of three. You can email him at