NEW YORK – Ramadan is a sacred month for Muslims around the world. Every year, observers anticipate and engage in spiritually uplifting individual and communal worship. Gathering at the local mosque becomes a family affair and involves people of all backgrounds and ages.
The month also reveals how varied fasting and worship can be during its 30 days. Muslims may or may not fast for a variety of reasons, and depending on several factors, their worship of Allah can be unique.
Autistic Muslims and their families frequently join Ramadan festivities at their local masjids and community centers. Unfortunately, issues arise stemming from a lack of awareness about Muslims on the spectrum and how they navigate through the world and their faith.
AboutIslam asked autists and their family members about life during Ramadan. Verbal autistic Muslims were not available for interview, but mothers of children on the spectrum shared their experiences.
Special Ramadan Challenges
In addition to fasting long, hot summer days, Muslims with children on the spectrum face special challenges when attending the masjid.
Some parents choose to remain home and not participate. “I can’t go to Taraaweeh, and we must stay home for ‘Eid,” Nakia told AboutIslam.
“My husband and I rotate who will go to community iftars or taraaweeh prayer,” said Baiyina Abdel-Jaleel. She and her husband are parents of two autistic children.
“Either he goes, or I go. There are no accommodations for my sons at any masjids in our area, so we rarely get to go out as a family.”
Abdel-Jaleel explained that caring for her special needs children can affect ways in which her and her husband engage spiritually during the month.
“We have to watch them constantly, so it can be harder to focus on the spiritual aspects of the month. Their sleeping patterns are erratic, so getting up for suhoor can be especially difficult,” she said.
Autistic Muslims, Iftar and Prayer
Interacting with their fellow Muslims at community events is important to many autistic Muslims and their families, but a scarcity of spaces for special needs children and adults adversely affects their ability to do so.
Mother-advocate Maryam A. Sullivan tries to make sure she takes her daughter to the masjid during Ramadan.
“I always try to bring my daughter out a couple of times during Ramadan to the masajid. I want her to be able to experience Ramadan and to worship Allah with others, but it is difficult,” she told AboutIslam.net.
Masjids are particularly crowded and noisy during Ramadan festivities. Breaking the fast with fellow Muslims often involves long lines, cramped spaces and lots of children playing, all of which can be taxing on an autistic Muslim’s sensibilities.
Crowds, especially pushy ones can be grating. A lot of autistic Muslims do better in one-to-one situations, so a crowd can cause sensory overload, which may cause an emotional meltdown.
Autistic Muslims may also have heightened sensitivity to sounds that many of us also experience. Therefore, it is important that masjid organizers make special considerations for Muslims who may need more space and less noise.
Sullivan told AboutIslam that appropriate accommodations are rare.
“Finding a place for my daughter to pray that is safe, not too tight and will provide her with a spot to sit down when it is needed is always challenging. The masajid are overly crowded during this time and Muslims who don’t normally come out and know ‘regulars’ [like my daughter] are there.”
Sullivan also explained that Muslims with limited knowledge about autism frequently demonstrate impatience towards their coreligionists on the spectrum, which can negatively impact the entire family’s experience.
“It’s frustrating and overwhelming to have to explain repeatedly my daughter’s limitations, to deal with staring or worst, taunting.”
Ironically, many adults and children not on the spectrum have similar reactions to the pushing and shoving at community iftars and other events, but the responses of autistic Muslims comes under specific scrutiny and regularly makes them targets for ridicule.
Services for Autistic Muslims
All the Muslim parents interviewed suggested that masjids make a better effort to accommodate autistic patrons.
“Muslim communities can better accommodate autists and their families by being inclusive and recognizing that they are in the community,” explains Sullivan, “space should be made for us in masajid – where we can pray, listen to the daroos [Islamic lectures] and eat with our autist family members with peace and dignity.”
“Have an introduction to Ramadan activity that is autism-friendly,” recommended Nakia, “hire experienced babysitters and have quiet spaces during Taraweeh and `Eid.”
Abdel-Jaleel proposes that community leadership connect with Muslim parents to learn about necessary services.
“Reach out to the parents to know what the limits are for the autistic Muslims in your communities. See what kind of individual accommodations the community should make. Have assistance during community iftar and supervised care during prayer.”
Interviewees concur that the lack of spaces for special needs children and adults hinders their families’ communal worship and ability to connect to their creator on a profound level that comes with congregational devotion.