Dear Pope Francis, Thanks for Bringing Love to Those with Autism

Dear Pope Francis, Thanks for Bringing Love to Those with Autism November 24, 2014
Photo courtesy of Associated Press.
Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

I was sitting with a group of newcomers, reverts, new and old friends yesterday at a luncheon our halaqa (Islamic study group) had put together to reach out to anyone new to our community. In speaking with our small group about why we need to reach out to each other and stay connected, a sister in the group made an important observation (paraphrasing):

It can be hard for reverts (converts to Islam) in our community. They can feel lost or disconnection. Not welcomed. The Christian community from where lots of us are coming from – well they’re good with their community. We [the Muslim community] are a young community. We have a ways to go, but we will get there.

In raising a son who is profoundly autistic and nonverbal as well as two other children, I often lament the lack of inclusion and support from our local Muslim community and most every such Muslim community across the United States. I am trying to raise faithful children, and I am trying to stay strong and connected to my faith and my faith community. But, that proves very difficult when there is often no place for my son and little support for my family and others like mine, who are struggling in a myriad of ways.

In posts I’ve written and speeches I’ve given, I often cite examples from the Christian and Jewish communities of ways they have built programs and modeled various inclusionary practices to reach out to special needs families in their communities – respite programs, Sunday School classes for those with special needs, buddy programs, special services, sermons and speeches.

But in the quiet moments at home, sometimes I wonder why it matters so much. One of the most beautiful things about Islam, about being a Muslim, is the direct conversations, the direct line I have to God. No intermediaries, no one in between. Muslims have no overall leader, no religious hierarchy of leadership. I need no masjid, I need no imam, I need no one – just me and Him. To Him I beseech, to Him I cry, to Him I share our joys, to Him I yell and rage.

So why does it matter so much sometimes? Why does it fill my heart when anyone of religious authority, be it Muslim, Christian or whatever, acknowledges or reaches out to autism and/or special needs community?

This weekend at “The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope,” a three-day conference at the Vatican sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health Care, Pope Francis spoke to participants and held a special meeting with children and individuals with autism as well as their families. Reported Vatican Radio:

“To meet their needs and break through their loneliness, the Pope spoke of creating a network of support and services on the ground that are comprehensive and accessible. This is the responsibility of governments and intuitions he said but also of Christian communities, parishes and friends. This continued the Pope would help families overcome the feelings, that can sometimes arise, of inadequacy, uselessness and frustration when faced with the daily realities of autism.

In perusing photos and reading more about the meeting, I felt a strange sort of uplifting, better articulated by one of the parents who, along with her child, met the Pope:

“After offering a prayer, Francis greeting the young children and teens with autism and their families, kissing the children and cupping their faces in his hands as he circulated the auditorium at the Vatican. Some appeared to avoid the pope’s eyes, while one teen whom the pope had greeted followed the pontiff and gave him another hug from behind.

Families of children affected with autism were touched by the pope’s words.

‘It was an explosion of emotions,’ said Maria Cristina Fiordi, a mother of a child with autism. “For us, we are parents of a child affected with autism, this meeting was very important. It was as an outstretched hand through a problem that is very often not considered in the right way.”

And while I know that many individuals with autism and autism advocates take a lot of issue with the verbiage of being referred to as a “problem” or the being the source of difficulty (I too do not consider my son a problem, but I can’t deny that things can be terribly difficult for him), I hope we can appreciate the intention of what Pope Francis and the Vatican is trying to do.

It matters. It just does. To be acknowledged, to be heard and seen, to have our hopes, dreams, fears, troubles and joys talked about. It all matters.

When Mufti Ismail Menk posted an update on Facebook two years ago in Ramadan addressing the importance of supporting and including individuals with special needs, that mattered. When Shaykh Omar Suleiman made a video addressing special needs families and individuals, that mattered. When he lent his name and support to the creation of MUHSEN, a new Muslim organization dedicated to creating model programs of inclusion for masjids as well as helping special needs families in a variety of ways – that mattered.

When EnabledMuslim, another great new organization (for which I’m on the advisory board) launched its web portal of gathering services and supports, spiritual and otherwise, for Muslims with special needs and their families, that mattered

When a dear friend of mine took a leadership role in her local Catholic church and ended up creating a Sunday School class for special needs children and helped facilitate a White Mass dedicated to special needs parishoners – and invited me and the rest of her friends to come – that mattered. And after I posted about the White Mass, another Muslim autism mom friend contacted me and said in that Ohio, she has worked to create an inclusionary Sunday School class for Muslim kids with special needs children, and she wanted to tell me more about it. That mattered, too.

As a Muslim community, we have a ways to go to do right by those with intellectual, physical, cognitive and other disabilities. Hearing Pope Francis minister to Catholics around the world about autism drove that point home for me. But like my halaqa friend said , more than ever I believe this – We have a ways to go but we’ll get there.

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