Please Note: The views and suggestions expressed in this article stem from the author’s own research through speaking to various Muslim parents with autistic children, educators and charities working with autistic children of all backgrounds within Scotland.
When Prophet Muhammad ﷺ arrived in Madinah, he ﷺ immediately recognised the need to build strong bonds among the diverse group of Muslims, which at that time included both the Muhajirun (migrants from Makkah) and the Ansar (locals of Madinah). To foster unity and brotherhood, he ﷺ established the “Pact of Brotherhood” (Mawakhat), where each Muhajir (migrant) was paired with an Ansari (helper), creating a bond of mutual support and friendship.
This initiative not only addressed the economic disparities within the Muslim community but also promoted social integration and inclusivity. Consequently, the mosque evolved into a central hub, further strengthening these bonds. The lessons from this episode in the Seerah emphasise the importance of fostering a sense of community within the mosque, where all members, regardless of their background, ability or financial status, play an integral role in building a cohesive and supportive Muslim society.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ also said,
“Facilitate things to people (concerning religious matters), and do not make it hard for them and give them good tidings and do not make them run away (from Islam).” (Bukhari)
The need to facilitate people within the mosque is not just a direct order from our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; it is the key to establishing the kind of community spirit found within the Prophet’s ﷺ own mosque.
In light of this, it is important for local mosques to regularly evaluate the facilities they provide against the requirements of the community and make improvements and adjustments where required. This article is a means of contributing to that process, by discussing the needs of one particular sector of the Muslim community today.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (Autism) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behaviour. Individuals with Autism will struggle with each of these aspects to varying degrees. Within social hubs such as mosques, their symptoms are likely to increase.
To date, the country reporting the highest number of Autism cases is Qatar, which has a largely Muslim population. This would lead one to believe that the Muslim world is ahead of the game when it comes to dealing with the needs of autistic members of the community. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In many Muslim countries, it is difficult to even get a diagnosis of the condition for young children. The reason is not entirely clear; however, cultural taboos around acknowledging disabilities and lack of knowledge of Autism likely contribute to this.
Back in the UK, alhamdulillah things are improving, and in recent years, there has been a growing awareness and understanding of Autism within the Muslim community. But there is still a long way to go. Many Muslim parents with autistic children feel let down by their local mosques.
For example, a common grievance is that their local mosque either refuses to accept their child into the Maktab (Islamic classes), or where accepted, is not willing to make any adjustments to the system to help facilitate their child. As a result, parents often decide to go for private tuition for their child’s Islamic learning.
Parents also find it difficult to attend the mosque themselves at prayer times, due to the fear that their child might not cope well in the mosque environment and disturb the prayers. This results in both the parents and the child feeling isolated from the mosque and the local community.
So, what is the solution? On a closer examination of the requirements of the autistic community, this can be easily avoided with a few small adjustments to the way that the mosque operates.
Here are 7 simple, cost-effective ways that mosques can cater to the needs of the autistic community.
Having a designated quiet space, where autistic individuals or parents with autistic children can go if they start to feel overwhelmed with the busyness of the mosque can help to reduce stress levels for the individual. This can be a separate room within the mosque, or if there is no space, a section of the main prayer hall cordoned off with a curtain. Knowing that they have their special sanctuary within the mosque will also encourage these individuals to return more regularly.
Sensory learning equipment is designed to help regulate sensory input which is particularly important for autistic individuals who are often hyper-sensitive. Investing in a few inexpensive items would have a great impact on the ability of these individuals to feel comfortable within the mosque.
For example, where an individual is sensitive to noise from a microphone, they could make use of noise-reducing headphones. If an individual is generally anxious by being in a new environment, focusing on a tasbih, particularly a digital one that allows them to watch the numbers increase as their fingers press, could help calm their nerves.
Providing visual aids such as videos that the individual could watch to help understand the routine of mosque activities, prayers, and events ahead of coming could also help reduce their stress levels.
For all children, sensory books provide a variety of textures, fabrics, and materials that they can touch and explore. This tactile stimulation can be especially beneficial for autistic children, helping them engage with and understand the text. Adding Islamic sensory books to the Mosque library would be a great way to help children learn the deen while catering to their sensory needs.
Autism-friendly adult sessions could be added to the mosque’s weekly halaqahs. This can be a smaller group, where individuals get more 1-1 attention from the Imam and learning is more tailored in comparison to a larger gathering.
Additionally, having a regular group where children with Autism can attend together and learn in an environment set up to suit their needs can work wonders for the child’s learning and help them build a greater attachment to the mosque.
Often, parents who have children with disabilities are themselves struggling, so a group with the opportunity to meet other parents in similar circumstances can provide them with the comfort and support they need.
The mosques which have started incorporating such sessions have found them to be extremely successful. For example, a mosque in Birmingham recently introduced an ‘Autism hour’, which had a fantastic response from the attendees, many of whom had never entered the mosque before. Similarly, Lanarkshire Mosque in Scotland has had resounding success with its ‘Flowers of Jannah’ group, the first Autism-friendly children’s class within a Scottish mosque.
While dedicated groups are a great start, there is also a need to be more inclusive within the regular Maktab structure of the mosque, to allow autistic children to integrate with all Muslims kids and take part in the same learning. This would have the added benefit of teaching other children about inclusivity and the need to care about the whole community.
Educators within mosques must start changing the mindset that such a child would be a strain on their resources and recognise this as an incredible opportunity from Allah. A heart-warming news article from Oman in October 2023 spoke of a nine-year-old autistic boy who completed his memorisation of the Quran. When provided with the correct environment, there is every chance that neurodiverse children can achieve amazing things. These children will be an immense sadaqah jariah for those who make the effort to provide that environment.
Firstly, mosque staff and teachers should meet with the parents and child beforehand, build a relationship with the child and get to know their specific needs before he or she enters the classroom.
While it may be difficult for a teacher handling a busy class to also sufficiently support the autistic child, the mosque can work with parents to create appropriate solutions. For example, if the mosque is not able to fund additional support, they can enlist parents’ help with covering the cost of a classroom assistant or fundraising towards it.
Studies have shown that a clear structure and routine are helpful to the majority of people struggling with Autism, as it provides them with a sense of security. For autistic children attending the Maktab, a visual timetable and clock illustrating the sequence of activities throughout the day would help the child know what to expect and when.
In addition, studies have shown that learning through sensory play is highly beneficial for all children, not just those with autism. Hence, there is significant value in introducing basic sensory play to the Maktab curriculum. For example, a small sandbox or sand table can be provided where children can draw out the Arabic letters with their fingers.
Autism is not the same as a physical disability. It also differs from other neurological disabilities such as ADHD and Dyslexia. Thus, staff and other employees in positions of authority should be made aware of the different ways these can present.
Regular training for staff and volunteers will help them understand the exact issues faced by individuals from each category and equip them with the relevant skills to support each group.
Autism is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder because it encompasses a wide range of symptoms and levels of impairment. Individuals with autism may vary significantly in their abilities and challenges. What works for one individual might not for another. Getting to know each person is the best way to cater to their needs. This can be through speaking with them or their caretakers.
In line with the brotherhood approach of the Prophet ﷺ, it might be helpful to pair a regular attendee/volunteer with an individual with special needs. This provides a beautiful opportunity to strengthen their bonds, as well as create a support system to lean on, such that whenever the individual with autism feels overwhelmed within the mosque, they immediately know where and how to seek comfort.
Similarly, for a child joining the Maktab, a buddy system such as the one provided within mainstream schools would be ideal.
The mosque should be open to feedback from the target audience to allow for opportunities to learn, improve and grow. Having a dedicated feedback form that individuals and parents can complete (with the option for anonymity), alongside a review and response system is an ideal way to let these individuals know that they are being seen and heard.
All of the suggestions above are neither costly nor onerous but the rewards of implementing them will be immense for all those involved. Above all, they would be a means of fulfilling the obligation of facilitating others and strengthening the brotherhood and community spirit within our mosques.
Sana A. Faqir is the author of an upcoming children’s sensory board book about Ramadan. Sana is also the Coordinator of the Islamic Book Fair of Scotland, an annual event which brings the best Muslim Kids’ Literature from around the world, to her home in Scotland. Sana’s aim is to ensure that Muslim kids in Scotland find representation in the books that they read. Instagram and Facebook: @sana_a_faqir Twitter: @SanaFaqir