Anyone who tries to connect that divide between raising an autistic child and adhering to faith traditions knows what a difficult task that is. And I’m not talking about crisis of faith, about those “What is God’s plan? or “Why my child?” or “Will my prayers ever be answered?” type of problems. I’m talking about including special needs children in faith practices and in houses of worship.
Whether the child is high-functioning, moderate, or severely autistic, whether he can talk or not, if he has behavioral issues or problems in social settings, whatever the nature of his autism is, finding a way to incorporate him into religious ceremonies or specific practices of faith can be an exercise in frustration and futility, especially if one’s house of worship does not have a plan of inclusion for special needs children – and most don’t.
To be sure, some religious communities are making the effort to include their special needs parishioners in their services. Some autism organizations even offer great informational sheets on how to plan for services at houses of worship. But within the Muslim community, at least in the Muslim American community, I’ve seen little inclusion of special needs children and adults in mosques. As I’ve connected with more and more Muslim families with autistic children, one of our biggest sources of sadness and frustration is we often feel the welcome mat isn’t out for our children.
Salat, the Mosque, and the Special Needs Child
Going for salat (prayers), especially Jummah salat (Friday prayers) at the mosque is something I have not done with our eldest son, Lil D, in a long time. Salat is a very exact and precise exercise in worship. We must stand in straight lines, shoulder to shoulder, avoiding gaps in between. We must follow the direction of our imam and concentrate on our prayer. Any kids who get rowdy during salat usually get a reprimand. Even in the ladies section, where moms are more sympathetic to crying babies and fidgety kids, a child who is quite disruptive is not welcome.
Meet my son – the rowdy, disruptive child.
He is constantly on the move, and when he is stymming, he is LOUD. I’ve had sisters come and give me a talking to when I’ve tried to keep Lil D with me during Friday prayers, not to mention tons of looks that I get. Sometimes I try to explain what the situation is, and sometimes I find it’s not worth it. Often, when we go to the mosque for Friday prayers, my husband and I take turns. He prays with the congregation while I hang outside with Lil D, and then he comes out and I go in to pray – but I pray alone.
I stopped taking Lil D to taraweeh during Ramadan as well. The rush of people, the loudness of prayers being said over the microphone – it’s just too much. I tried it a few times, but I met my waterloo when, after a day of fasting, I broke my fast and then took Lil D into the hallway during Maghreb prayers because he was being disruptive. And he got so agitated that I ended up taking him home – and hours later I realized I never prayed Maghreb at all.
Eid prayers can also be hit-or-miss. While I have successfully been able to take Lil D to most Eid prayers and pray myself (because we’re in a big community hall or sports center, and I position myself in the back, on the edge where I can keep an eye on him), I still feel the void for him. There seems to be nothing geared towards making him feel a part of the celebration.
I know the fault doesn’t entirely lie with the mosque, the imam, or the Muslim community. It’s imperative on me to be an advocate for my son, to introduce him to the congregation, to fight for his place there, to talk to the imam and explain our needs. But when you fight battles of inclusion at every turn, when you expect your mosque, your religious community to be your sanctity, you don’t want to have to make the effort there. You want the effort to be made for you – by your community, by Allah.
Stepping Up to the Plate
And so, when I heard that a special Eid celebration was being organized for special needs kids this year in Washington, D.C., by the DC chapter of the Muslim American Society, I was overjoyed. This was the second year I had heard about it, and last year, for various reasons, we were unable to take Lil D. But this year, I was bound and determined to make it happen.
So off they went, with my instructions to my husband that he would have to write about the experience when he returned that evening. Now my husband is not a writer by any means. But he obliged me. Throughout the day he sent me text messages and photos of the experience, and when he came home that night, I could see it had been a very special, moving day for him.
I thank MAS-DC for putting this together, for giving our son an Eid celebration just for him, geared for him, special for him. I thank them for encouraging the kids to pray, regardless of if they did the movements correct, of they stood in a straight line, or if they made noises.
Below is my husband’s account of the Eid prayer and celebration:
My wife and I had always felt a void when it came to Muslim community events geared specifically towards special needs children. So when my wife found out that the MAS community center in Alexandria, Virginia was organizing an Eid event for special needs children, she was one of the first ones to sign up.
We had planned to go with the entire family and drop our two ‘normal’ kids with the grandparents and take Lil D to the event. Unfortunately our little one came down with a cold the eve of the event forcing us to change our plans. I decided to take Lil D, while Mamma stayed home with the other two.
The drive from our home to Alexandria, VA is about an hour and a half. When we arrived at the MAS community center, it was a beautiful fall day with mild temperatures. We were greeted at the registration desk by two volunteers who signed us in. They gave us a map of the facility and explained where all the stations were set up. By this time, Lil D had already spotted the moon bounces in the parking lot, so off we went! There were about 10 kids, and they all stood patiently — taking turns in the moon bounces. After Lil D bounced to his heart’s content (no time or age limits here!), we headed towards the petting zoo.
Lil D enjoyed the little pony at the petting zoo and took a special liking to the alpaca. The poor animal actually felt a little intimidated because he kept trying to push his fingers into its mouth. They even had a pony ride, but Lil D was just not in the mood. Next, we decided to check out the indoor stations.
Lil D was excited to see the gift station. They had gifts for kids of different ages colorfully wrapped. Lil D picked up his own gift and unwrapped it right there; it was a set of stacking blocks! We tried the face painting station next, but as expected, the first touch of wet paint on Lil D’s face, and he jumped out of his chair. At the photo station he sat nicely and posed for a nice portrait with me. We went to the food station next, but Lil D is not much of a pizza fan, so we headed out for some chicken nuggets and fries instead. We rushed back just in time for the special Zuhr prayer.
The Zuhr prayer was certainly the highlight of the event. All the parents and kids had gathered in the prayer hall after lunch. The imam gave a brief talk about the importance of salat, even for kids with special needs. He then explained that even though Zuhr prayer is normally offered in silence, he would make an exception for this special jamaat. He read aloud at every step so that the kids could benefit from listening to how Salat is offered.
To see these kids stand in khayam and do sajdah (prostrate) before Allah, their creator, was something special. They might have stood in crooked lines, their wadu (ablution) might have been imperfect, but there was something about this jamaat that really tugged at everyone’s heart. After all it was Allah’s angels on earth in congregation.
— Mir T. Ali