On the last evening of the Arbaeen program at my Islamic center, the speaker, standing on stage, beckoned to an eight year-old boy sitting in the front row.
“You’re going to help me recite the ziyarat, okay?” the speaker said.
The boy stepped onto the stage and nodded eagerly. As this brother recited the ziyarat, I could hear the voice of the boy echoing faintly into the microphone, an uncertain warble as he stumbled over Arabic words he could not pronounce. But I paid little attention to the ziyarat. My mind was on the wide-eyed little boy.
Michael had a loud, somewhat disoriented voice and always spoke in a halting, breathless way. He would sit by strangers in the Islamic center and start talking to them, but wouldn’t make eye contact, and always got in trouble for his restless behavior. Michael had ADD but I wasn’t the least bit surprised, because he behaved in a manner strikingly similar to that of someone I know very well.
My younger brother – we’ll call him Ali- was diagnosed with Autism at the age of five. Similar to ADD, Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that affect a person’s brain development. Autism is commonly characterized by difficulty in communicating and socializing, and having repetitive behavior patterns. Autism is becoming worryingly common, with about 1 in every 68 children being affected by an ASD.
My parents began to see Ali’s antics as symptoms as they read book after book on his condition. His habit of knocking things over during a tantrum wasn’t typical rowdy, boyish behavior, as they had previously assumed, and he wasn’t trying to be bratty when he refused to eat anything that wasn’t square-shaped. It became clear that my brother was a little different, and needed help.
Ali began to attend speech therapy at the hospital. From the moment he entered the building, the staff treated him like an old friend, greeting him with a warm, “Hi, Ali, we missed you!” and a hi-five. Outside of this haven, however, the world had a very different attitude.
Doctors stressed that Ali needed attention and social interaction with children his own age. What better place to be social, thought my parents, than our Islamic center? There, Ali would be in an Islamic environment and have plenty of little friends to play with.
But perhaps my parents had forgotten about the countless older children in our community, who had a variety of mental disabilities, and how unkindly they were treated. Perhaps they had forgotten about the teenage girl who couldn’t utter a single coherent word, who was called a jinn by the older women. Perhaps it was foolish of us all to think that this would be different; that this time, Ali would be accepted.
Needless to say, Ali was shunted to the side like every other disabled child in our community. Parents didn’t see his Autism; they saw a hyper, rowdy boy who wouldn’t grow up, and they told their children to stay away. They didn’t really have to say anything, though. Kids thought Ali was “weird” and stopped including him in their games. I had seen them forming little groups, ignoring my brother as he’d stand a few feet away from them, quoting funny movie lines loudly and laughing to himself. My parents tried all they could to bribe younger boys with sticks of gum and toys so Ali could have a playmate, but their efforts were in vain. The meanness of the children, coupled with the unsympathetic demeanor of their parents, was merciless, and my brother was left friendless.
Ali was determined to try to find someone to talk to. When he saw no one was interested in his toy cars, he tried telling jokes he had memorized from television shows. Occasionally he’d start screaming loudly, just to get a reaction out those around him. At one point, he gave up on children and tried speaking to older men in the community. He’d tell them all about his trucks, and would eagerly recite the history of the American Revolution. The men responded to him politely in the presence of my father, but when he was at work Ali was largely ignored by my father’s so-called friends.
I wish I had known enough about Autism to inform others about it. I wish I had been old enough to understand that my brother was excited to hold a conversation but didn’t know how, and resorted to “acting out,” and reciting the Declaration of Independence. More than anything, I wish our community had been accepting and kind; even if we didn’t fully understand the disorders that our children had been diagnosed with, we still could have opened our hearts and made our Islamic center a safe place.
Now, that safe place is gradually being formed. As the youth have started to take responsibility for hosting events, special children are being encouraged to take part. Younger kids are still hesitant to include special children in their circles, but parents are beginning to lose their narrow-minded attitudes. While progress is slow, the Ummah is trying to bridge the gap between special children and their peers. I believe with this change, special Muslim children will be able to see that they are valuable members of the community, and will become more comfortable with expressing themselves here.
At the same time, I believe this change may be coming too late. As I watched the speaker sit Michael down after the ziyarat and speak softly to him, I was reminded painfully of Ali, who had refused to come and was home alone. Around his pre-teen years, Ali had begun to realize that people at the center saw him as a nuisance and resented going altogether. When Ali does come, he rarely speaks to a soul, because the damage has been done; he knows that he still does not truly fit in. While I am happy for the younger children who are receiving the respect and care they deserve, I wonder why no one ever gave my brother a thought when he desperately sought attention. As our Ummah celebrates its progress, we must realize that while there are special children opening up to our communities, there are others who, like Ali, are shutting themselves away.