A Special Eid for Autistic and Special Needs Children

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.

Last weekend, we had our plans laid out – we would go to Maryland and drop our other two kids off with my parents, and we would take Lil D to his special Eid celebration. Unfortunately, my youngest son and I both came down with bad colds, and I despaired that once again my careful plans were falling apart. But my husband came up with a new plan. He would take Lil D, and I would relax at home with the other kids.  I was still upset and wanted to go myself, but I came to the conclusion that – as usual – I may make plans, but Allah knows best.

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:

Angels in the Congregation

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

About Dilshad Ali
  • Firdaussultan

    SUBHANALLAH…..i wish we can have this kind of gathering in every state and every city..INSHALLAH .one step at time

  • http://readwithmeaning.wordpress.com Mezba

    SubhanAllah. I have tears in my eyes as I read this. May Allah bless these people, and also bless this earth because such people still exist.

  • Asra425

    Great story. I hope events like this become more commonplace in the community. It’s important that we don’t forget the special needs of some children when practicing our faith.

  • Amatullah

    Subhanallah, the last paragraph brought tears to my eyes. Having had experience working with special needs kids, I do wish there were more opportunities for special needs kids to feel part of our masjid community. I’m really glad that MAS held that event, alhamdulillah, and I hope that the idea will spread inshallah. 

  • Mrafay

    Mashallah!

  • http://www.strandedmom.com Stranded Mom

    salam alekum sister. MashaAllah I have been forwarding this post in  my community and in Toronto, there are groups trying to make mosques more inclusive, but we often face similar difficulties. I really enjoyed this post and found it very hopeful.
    Jazak Allah Khayr for sharing.

  • Shalla_khan

    Beautiful

  • Mubarek

    MASHALLAH!!! It is really touching.Thanks for sharing!

  • Rafia

    Masha Allah, this was touching. I hope this is something we can implement in Toronto Insha Allah

  • um.Mumin

    Absolutely Beautiful. May Allah help us in always advocating for people with disabilities, even though it is through them Allah softens our hearts.

  • Jessi

    Assalamu alaikum. Thank you so much for raising awareness of this issue and for your lovely account of the event you attended. It sounded wonderful! 

    I don’t think this is something most of us think about if we don’t have a child with special needs. I will be sharing this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001147428981 Rana Abuhamdan

    mashallah .make duaa for my son sisters do not forget us pls ……..:)

  • Aasiyah

    As a mother of an autistic muslim boy I can relate to many things you had said here. i had been away from the masjed for 7 years now, not being able to attend lectures  hardly ever because of the looks and ugly ignorant comments people make there. WE go sometimes in the middle of the day when no one is there or just a few people , so my kids can know what is really means being in the masjed.
    It is great to know that the muslim community starting to recognize and acknowledge the need of something that accommodate special need families.
    Every time i see a smile on my son’s face after an event It warms my heart and thank Allah for giving us another beautiful day. God bless you and your family.
    Aasiyah

  • uzma

    Subhanullah, lovely article.
    Somehow, I don’t (often) feel left out from the masjid. I would love to go, but let’s not underestimate the reward we get by being patient and bowing down to Allaah swt’s Will. It is probably better for the collective good that I keep my autistic son at home and others can pray and listen to the khutbah in peace. And wallahi, with Allaah is the reward for every good deed, and for even a prick of thorn we endure (and this, as we know, is obviously much more painful and longer-lasting).


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