Irish-American Witchcraft: Pagan Events and Special Needs Children (or Adults)

[Author’s Note:  This is re-posted and revised from my personal blog under the title of “Celebrating Samhain with a Complex Child”]

One of the walls I often crash against in the wider pagan community is the inaccessibility of events and rituals for children who have special needs, from autism spectrum disorders to physical mobility issues, that require accommodation. We are a community that prides itself on inclusivity, and yet I often see a lack of it towards children in general and specifically towards children who have behavioral or physical challenges. The biggest argument against it seems to be that something important will be lost if we change what we are doing to make it easier for children with different needs to attend. I disagree, and I think by making our rituals ¹ too focused on creating a numinous experience for the adults present we are losing a more genuine feeling of community that should be present in religious worship by open groups.

What frustrates me is that it doesn’t have to be this way – while it does require compromise and reworking it is not impossible to accommodate families that need it. And I will never believe the Gods, ancestors or spirits are offended by the actions or needs of a child who is doing their best in the moment and only wants to be part of a spiritual celebration. Obviously certain types of rites which might qualify as mystery rites or ecstatic rites are an entirely different matter, but what I am talking about here is the public celebration of things, events which should by their nature be about bringing the community together to honor the Gods.

Food

Food Table Healthy Delicious Organic Meal Concept
Rawpixel / Shutterstock.com

Feasting is a big part of many pagan religions. Allergies are things both adults and children deal with and should not ever be something that is treated lightly. Just because peanuts are your favorite treat doesn’t mean it will kill you to skip bringing them to a group celebration, and being around them might just kill someone else. And that’s not hyperbole.

Let me fill you in on something all parents know: kids don’t care about whether eating something will make them sick, if it tastes good they will eat it anyway. My daughter for many years was not allowed to eat gluten, soy, or dairy because of a congenital immune deficiency disorder which made her digestive system very touchy, and chocolate was something she could only have in very small amounts. That never stopped her from overeating things she shouldn’t have when she had a chance with predictable results. Younger kids with allergies are not going to police themselves, and even older ones don’t always make good choices, and I get really irritated when adults complain about how unfair it is that they have to skip out on a food they like or about being expected to cater to someone else’s allergies.

On a related side note, its super frustrating when there is only dish at a pot luck or similar event that a child can eat and everyone else is taking huge servings of it, not leaving enough for that child to eat very much. I know people think this is hard to accommodate but I have been at several weekend long events that were catered and offered food options that were not only gluten free and vegetarian or vegan but also took into account specific allergies. It really isn’t that difficult to do — even simply labeling potluck dishes with ingredients can be enormously helpful. 

Accessibility

Paralyzed man using his wheelchair
Minerva Studio / Shutterstock.com

Most people don’t think of this one, and honestly I can only imagine the frustration of parents with children in wheelchairs who are faced with hikes or trips over uneven ground to reach a ritual site. My daughter is ambulatory but due to a heart condition she tires easily and doesn’t have the stamina for long walks, never mind hikes. I can’t tell you how often I end up carrying her (luckily  she’s very small, so carrying her is still an option).

It shouldn’t be that difficult to find a suitable site that is easy for people with mobility issues to access.  At the Morrigan Retreat in June of 2014 we had to change our ritual location to accommodate such a situation and there was no complaining about it ruining things or blaming people for putting everyone else out. We came together as a community and made it work for everyone, once we knew there was an issue. Which of course raises the point that if you are an organizer you should try to get an idea of what people’s limitations are, and if you have mobility issues you shouldn’t hesitate to make those clear.

I have a friend who is a sign language interpreter and we have discussed several times the huge challenge that deaf pagans face in trying to find even basic accommodations at rituals and workshops. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not public ceremonies are designed, almost exclusively, for people with five functional senses, full mobility, and normal stamina. We really need to start asking ourselves where this leaves all the people who don’t have all of those things. Is it that difficult to make what we do truly open to everyone? ²

Behavioral Issues

This is the one that has caused me to stop bringing my children to most events, in all honesty. I’m not talking here about kids who are destructive or violent and really shouldn’t be expected to handle being in a ritual setting without disaster ensuing. I am also not talking about children who simply aren’t properly supervised or are being disruptive by choice, which is a different issue. I’m talking about kids who can’t act their age or who can’t focus or stay quiet or still through a ceremony.

People have expectations for the behavior of children at certain ages and when your child isn’t conforming to that not only is the child assumed to lack discipline but the parent is criticized for being too lenient. And in my experience even explaining that the child in question has a medical diagnoses makes no difference. People come to a spiritual gathering or ritual expecting a moving experience and they do not in any way want to deal with a child who can’t be still or quiet.

My daughter has a sensory processing disorder that means she is sensory seeking (she touches everything) and also certain things upset her. She has been in occupational therapy since she was a toddler and behavioral therapy since first grade, but these are not things that will ever go away, they are part of who she is. When she was small people were pretty tolerant of her quirky behavior, but as she has gotten older the tolerance has largely evaporated, especially with people who don’t know her.

I find it unfair to put that expectation of perfect behavior on any child but especially those that have extra challenges with conforming to behavioral expectations. This one is a double edged sword though because I have also had problems with judgment from people (not necessarily at pagan events, but in general) when I have to leave early because my daughter has hit her limit and is on the verge of a sensory meltdown. Children and parents who deal with these issues shouldn’t feel unwelcome at events that are advertised as being open to families.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obviously I’m biased but I do not believe this is how our ancestors would have reacted to people who had different needs, not when community was the center of celebration. Babies cry, women need to nurse during rituals, children fuss, kids need to use the bathroom at inopportune times, and so on. It seems natural that children who have behavioral issues would also be understood as part of the community and while – obviously – extreme disruptions can’t be allowed minor disturbances and less than perfect behavior would be tolerated. The community would find ways to make sure everyone possible attended ceremonies, I think. And while food issues may be a more modern thing I know our ancestors made sure everyone, even the poor and beggars, had something to eat on ritual days.

The biggest accommodations we make for my daughter are letting her come and go as she pleases during ceremonies, and letting her sit or play during the ceremonies if she’s having trouble focusing, and making sure nothing is too dark or too loud. We also keep each ceremony short and to the point because that’s easier for her to handle. It’s not that hard and while it has changed how I conduct rituals and the flow of my ceremonies I do not in any way feel that I’ve lost any substance. In a situation where I feel compelled to do something really complex or drawn out I do it by myself but honestly that’s very rare. My religion is part of the legacy I want to pass on to my children – all my children – and its important to me that she be and feel included.

If we, as modern pagans, want to be truly inclusive in our public rituals then we need to stop thinking that inclusive means crafting the ideal experience for able-bodied, contemplative adults. We need to start thinking of ourselves as the diverse group that we are. Crying babies, fussy children, outbursts, physical limitations, dietary restrictions…these are all the realities of the world we live in, and they are the realities of the world that the Gods, spirits and ancestors are connected to.

1. Please note that this does not refer to rituals or religious approaches that would not be open to children anyway, but only to rituals and events that are advertised or intended to be open to all community members. (back)

2. I do acknowledge that the issue of having an interpreter available is complicated because it is not a common enough skill. Maybe we should all try to learn a little sign language to bridge the gap. (back)


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