When ashes were too much for my son on Ash Wednesday 2017, here’s what I learned about being creative and flexible in celebrating special rituals and liturgical seasons as Catholics. Maybe you’ll find some of the ideas helpful for yourself or your family, or, if you’re a parish ministry leader, perhaps this will give you some ideas to use as you prepare for Ash Wednesday with your parishioners.
Ash Wednesday 2017 provided a new experience for me as a parent and person of faith and this experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on parenting, autism, faith, and inviting our younger generation to our rituals and expressions of faith. I wrote most of this on Ash Wednesday 2017 and share it now as a personal example to reflect upon, particularly for those who serve in parish leadership that might not otherwise have this kind of experiential insight:
It isn't a Holy Day of Obligation (or, as my husband calls it, a Holy Day of Obli-get-to), but still an important day in the Christian life, especially for Catholics. We begin Lent on the Day of Ashes - our 40 days of special time and attention given to examining our life and our relationship with God, so that our sins may be pruned and we may blossom into the more fully alive person God invites us to be.
Liturgy, Autism, and Sensory Processing Disorder
Liturgy can be a challenging, scary, and even painful experience for individuals on the autism spectrum or those who have sensory processing disorder. My son is no exception.
The "routineness" of ritual helps my kiddo, but the sensory and social aspects can be dysregulating for him. Going to Mass is one of our non-negotiables, though. We have a routine and tools we use to support him and to help him navigate the challenges and address his needs while trying to help him engage as much as he's able to in the Mass.
The Same but Different
Ash Wednesday 2017 was different, though. We primed him (i.e. verbally prepared him) about going to Mass and that we'd be receiving ashes on our foreheads. He was very against receiving ashes as soon as we brought it up. I could see his anxiety rise immediately at the idea of going to Mass during the week and putting something on his face - both, activities outside of his routine. We attempted to assuage his anxiety by explaining what would happen at the Ash Wednesday Mass and how the ashes were given, offering a simple explanation of why we receive ashes on our forehead, etc. but his anxiety only grew.
If we were going to insist that he come to Mass with us, we knew that we needed to reassure him that it was okay if he didn't receive the ashes, so that he wouldn't have that added anxiety on his heart and mind when we arrived at church. Part of me really hoped that, once in the experience, he would see my husband and I receiving ashes and maybe even some church friends receiving them, and be able to overcome his anxieties and give the ashes a go.
Ashes Were Too Much
The time came and he went through the line with us for ashes, but our priming and modeling did not alleviate his anxiety to the point that he would receive the ashes. I love Lent (it’s been one of my favorite liturgical seasons since I came back to the Church in 2003-2004) and so this was a little hard for me to see him not engage in some of the ritual of the season. My son received ashes as a baby and toddler, which added to the temptation to be upset or frustrated that he wouldn't receive the ashes now - "you've done it before! What's the problem now?" is what I tried to let go of and not dwell upon. It's also hard as a parent questioning how much you push your child outside of their comfort zone, which is where growth occurs, versus how much you heed to the demands and lived realities of autism and sensory processing disorder.
I don't know if the idea of ashes on his forehead created a sensory issue for him - he, like many individuals on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing disorder, is uncomfortable with things touching or on his face (e.g. water on the face during bath time or a shower can be torture). Maybe he didn't want the ashes because change and new things can be reeeaaalllly hard for people on the autism spectrum. I saw hints of some anxiety because we were going to church on a day we don't normally go and there were no donuts after Mass - before even discussing the ashes - for example.
Finding Peace and Balance
What I walk away feeling confident about, still, almost a year later is that we found the right balance of respecting our son's feelings and challenges, while still inviting and modeling Ash Wednesday for him. The ashes of our Ash Wednesday liturgies don't bear the weight and significance of a Sacrament and while I would love for my son to be open and receptive of all of the practices, devotions, sacramentals, and rituals of our faith, I feel blessed to have a growing peace in accepting him for who God made him to be right here and now, with no expectations, exceptions, or anticipation.
The Takeaway for Others
The big takeaway, the reason I share this experience, is to help us all become more aware and accepting of the challenges the celebrating and practicing of our Catholic faith can bring for people on the autism spectrum or with other disabilities. Perhaps, this perspective can help us become less judgmental of the child or adult who attends Ash Wednesday Mass, but doesn't receive ashes. I will confess that I have seen young people at Mass who don’t participate, don’t receive the Eucharist, don’t receive the ashes, don’t hold a palm, etc. and I have judged their lack of participation in my heart. I know better, now and I know I’m not the only person who has or will judge others at Mass. So maybe, just maybe, this can help whomever is reading this gain a new perspective and empathy. Maybe, it even helps us begin to think of meaningful ways of expressing the same sentiment, "for you are dust and to dust you shall return", that work with autistic individuals' sensory needs.
A Different Way
If you are similar to my son, or have a child, or minister with a child like my son for whom ashes are too much, here’s one idea for a different way of experiencing the ritual of the ashes: Even if ashes are a no-go, this symbolic and experiential teaching moment can be accomplished if you or your kiddo can handle or even like to get your hands in dirt. This isn’t a new idea and many faith formation programs might do something similar.
An activity you can do to still communicate the meaning of Lent and behind the ashes of Ash Wednesday is to bury an “Alleluia” in the dirt.
Find a patch of dirt out back or bring a little container of dirt inside. Write “alleluia” on a piece of paper or print out the activity guide and printable “alleluia” coloring page (below). Put your alleluia into a ziplock bag to protect it from the elements over the next 40 days of Lent. Then, bury your alleluia in the dirt. Pay attention to the look, feel, and smell of the dirt if that sensory input isn’t overwhelming. The messier, the better for this activity, again, if possible. Read Genesis 2:4-7. Then, read the reflections about alleluia and ashes below. Invite questions and a conversation about the experience.
One of the symbolic messages of the ashes on Ash Wednesday is to remind us of our own mortality - that you are dust and to dust you shall return. This symbolic moment points us back toward our creation and our Creator while also calling us forward to when we will see our Creator “face-to-face” - hopefully for all eternity. This experience and reflection inspires gratitude, love, and action that ideally propels us back into our Creator’s arms now, not waiting until we return to dust.
"Alleluia" means "praise to God." Because Lent is a more somber and penitential season, we don' sing or say "Alleluia" throughout the season, until Easter. Burying the Alleluia is a physical reminder to not say or sing it during Lent, and it reminds us that our focus is on what is to come.
Lastly, dig up your alleluia on Easter and then be sure to sing your favorite Easter song filled with the most alleluias.
You can get this activity and accompanying “Alleluia” coloring page as a FREE printable, just download here.
We are also proud to share a FREE Social Story and Visual Missal for Ash Wednesday! Click on the “Resources” link at the top of the navigation or go to this page to get your FREE copy of the Ash Wednesday Social Story and Visual Missal.
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Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I wouldn’t have even thought about how Ash Wednesday could be challenging for people with autism or other disabilities if it wasn’t for this post. I am so glad you have given me the awareness. Such a small thing, but very important in making sure I don’t make judgments on people.
Thanks Johnna. My son and the community are always teaching me.
I can relate to this in a way. I have family members with autism who are very sensitive to sound, so it’s totally understandable that ashes would also create an unwanted sensation. Thankfully, God is merciful and knows our hearts.
Thank you for sharing this! It sounds like you did an excellent job explaining and preparing your son for the opportunity to receive ashes. I think it’s great you have an alternative that still gives a wonderful way to think of a Lenten concept.
Thanks so much Laura. We all do our best. I’ve found the disability communities to be primarily very supportive, helpful, and creative.