Hannah Weis is never in Notre Dame stadium to watch her father’s team play football. Charlie Weis’s daughter, who turns 11 this April, has an autism-related developmental disorder that includes intolerance of loud sounds. The chaos of a football stadium is more than she can handle.
“Football games are impossible,” says her mother, Maura Weis. “They’re too crowded, and there’s too much noise. When Hannah was younger, certain lights also bothered her. Airplanes, too—she doesn’t mind flying, but she doesn’t like to be confined.”
Hannah was born with kidney problems and underwent surgery when she was only 2 months old. Then, between 15 and 18 months, she began missing developmental milestones. “She went from a friendly, smiling child who played with her brother and other kids to a child who just wanted to look at TV and not interact with anybody,” her mother says.
Maura Weis links the change to her daughter’s childhood immunizations: “I remember our doctor saying, ’She’s a big girl; let’s give her the shots early.’ And then it seemed like I don’t know where Hannah went.”
Although her most prominent issues are sensory, Hannah has global developmental delays—delays in speech, motor skills and social skills. Yet “she is very social and likes being with children her age,” says her mother. At the school she attends in nearby Granger, she takes part in gym and music classes and goes on all the class trips. She also receives occupational and physical therapy.
In 2003, prompted by their daughter’s experience, Maura and Charlie Weis ‘78 set up a nonprofit foundation. “First we bought a bunch of bikes for special-needs kids,” says Maura. "Then we thought it would be great to buy computers, so kids would have an alternative to watching television. We’re working now with a group in South Carolina to buy a farm and build a community of nine to 10 homes for families with special needs and low incomes. Our thing is bringing awareness and compassion to people with special needs." Part of that goal is served by a website called Hannah and Friends (www.hannahandfriends.org/).
Maura Weis concludes a personal message on the site this way: “I believe . . . that Hannah is an angel and put here on this earth to teach us.”