You may have heard of autism. What you may not have thought of is that it’s not just a non-Muslim issue.
According to the Center for Disease Control, autism is experienced by as many as 1 in 59 children. That includes Muslim children too.
“Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences,” reports Autism Speaks. “We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
“The term ‘spectrum’ reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.”
Parents often notice symptoms of autism during their children’s first two years of life. That’s when Dilshad Ali, of Richmond, VA, suspected that her eldest son, D, had the condition.
“I suspected him to have autism when he was 2,” said Ali, a mother of three children and a journalist. “He never pointed, he didn’t make eye contact. He used to line his toys up. Things like that. In the beginning we placated ourselves by saying that boys talk later. But it wasn’t long before I realized that he needed specialized help.”
Ali spoke to D’s pediatrician about his behavior and had him enrolled him in a school for the autistic. He is now 17 and has been getting special schooling for the past 14 years.
“At first D learned the typical type of things that was part of his natural development, such as reading and writing. Over time we added more self-care, more vocational skills, the sort of things needed to take care of himself,” said Ali.
“He has never called me Mama. He knows I’m his mother, but he’s nonverbal. That’s not to say he’s not communicative. D does communicate with us. For example he uses an app from an iPad to communicate different things. There are times when it’s not perfect though and he gets frustrated that he can’t communicate with us.”
For others, their experience with a family member who has autism is all they have ever known.
“I would remind people that autism is very unique to people who experience it. Some people have a very mild version, while others have a very tough version where they need to be taken care of in different ways, such as my brother,” said Jawwad Akbari from Halifax, Canada.
“My brother is older than me. I don’t know when I started realizing that he had autism. I couldn’t give a set time when it was clear he was different,” said the university student.
“Growing up with him I guess the major thing it taught me was patience. Now, alhamdulillah, he’s really settled down. Growing up he had a lot of mood swings. As he grew and matured you’d still have to have a sense of responsibility around him,” said Akbari. “At times it has pushed me out of my comfort zones. For example he might be very hyper and loud in situations when he needs to be quiet and we would have to calm him down.
““It’s interesting that what you think of when autism comes to mind is that typically they have a very hard time being around people, but my brother is different,” said Akbari. “He likes being around family for example, he just has a hard time communicating.”
Ali said that her friends and family have always been very accepting, in part because she is so open about her son’s condition. She has taken to blogging on Patheos for several years about her experience with her son (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/muslimahnextdoor/). However, she says that the Muslim community in general has lagged far behind in making accommodations.
“Fundamentally in our community there have been a lot of good hearts. It’s not like they say don’t bring him [to the masjid]. But as far as anyone stepping up and making accommodations by themselves, no.”
Ali mentioned that Muslims Understanding & Helping Education Needs (MUHSEN), of which she is a board member, is trying to help Muslim community members with disabilities.
“Even I, when I served as Imam of Masjid Abu Bakr in New Orleans, mistakenly sent a child with autism home from Quran class not knowing his condition,” said Sheikh Omar Suleiman, founder of MUHSEN.
Suleiman is not the parent of a child with autism, but was inspired to found MUHSEN in part due to his mother’s experience having suffered from cancer and several strokes.
“Many times I go to a city and parents with children in wheelchairs say their kids badly wanted to come but couldn’t get into the masjid. Even worse, parents with children who have autism email me saying that they wish they could attend but have to stay home with their child,” said Suleiman on MUHSEN’s web site.
“All of us need a change of attitude. … The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) deeply cared about including [the disabled] in every activity possible.
“Creating accommodations for the disabled has been done by other communities,” said Ali. “We just need to copy and paste. The resources are being developed and they are out there now. If you are thinking our community doesn’t have the money for it, or that we don’t have the time, you might be surprised.”
MUHSEN provides certification for masjids offering access to the disabled (https://muhsen.org/masjid-certification/). This includes everything from wheelchair access to braille Qur’ans to close-captioned screens.
According to Autism Canada (https://autismcanada.org/aging-and-autism/), “Having first been described in the 1940s, the first generation of people diagnosed with autism in childhood are now reaching mid to later life and little is known about what happens during these years.”
Family members sometimes wrestle with thoughts of what will happen when they are no longer able to protect their children.
“All of us with children who have autism think about what will have happen when we are no longer around to care for him,” said Ali. “Who will care for him, how will he live, where will he live, and so on. Also you think about what will his day-to-day living be like, what roles will his siblings have when is older.
“You try to have faith, but also lay the groundwork for the future,” said Ali