Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Mosque: Making Visiting the Mosque Easier for Those on the Spectrum
Please note that this article has been written for parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, but the information can be adapted for adults.
Visiting the mosque is an important part of the lives of Muslims. It is not only a place to pray in congregation, but to learn, partake in community activities, seek help, and connect with other Muslims. Unfortunately, visiting the mosque can be very difficult for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and their families. Some families have even stopped going to the mosque as it became too difficult. However, there are steps you can take that can make visiting the mosque easier and more comfortable for all. Before you begin planning your approach to visiting the mosque with your child you need to know what the problem is.
Does your child do something that is inappropriate in the mosque?
Abdullah becomes restless and fidgety during Jummah. His movement distracts those around him.
Does your child not do something that they are supposed to do in the mosque?
Jacob refuses to touch his head to the floor for Sujood.
In order to address your child’s behavior, or to encourage the desired behaviour, you need to first ascertain the reason behind your child’s behaviour, or what it is about the mosque that is causing difficulties for your child.
Lack of Understanding of Social Rules
Social interaction forms one of the central difficulties of ASD. It is particularly difficult for people with ASD to understand the different social rules of Mosques. They may apply social rules suited to other situations to the mosque. This causes people with ASD to sometimes behave in a socially inappropriate manner. For instance, they may not understand the need for restrained and respectful behaviour in the mosque, perhaps shouting or playing.
Abbas came to the mosque with his father and found that the specific place they usually pray at was already taken by some other men. Abbas walked over to them and asked them to move.
Lack of Fear
Some people with ASD do not have a fully developed sense of fear. If fear has been developed through a traumatic experience those with ASD may be unable to transfer that fear to another situation or location eg they may fear touching a fan at one location after it cut their hand, but may not fear touching fans at other locations. The main dangers at the mosque for those with a lack of fear are cars, fans, candles/lanterns, and hot or sharp objects used for preparing and serving food/drink.
People with autism are often sensitive to different types of sensations. These sensations include the basic sensations of taste, vision, touch, smell, and hearing; as well as proprioception (the sense of body awareness) and vestibular sensation (the sense of balance). Sensations may be overreacted or underreacted to (a person with ASD may overreact to one sensation, but underreact to another).
Mosques provide a high degree of sensory stimulation and information, which can cause significant difficulties for people with ASD:
Food and drink is often served in the mosque, particularly during Ramadan. Some people with ASD may refuse to eat the food offered to them because they dislike the taste. Others may eat other items, such as paper, because they like the taste.
Sarah gets upset when she visits the mosque with her family in Ramadan. She does not like the taste of dates, but they are always served in Ramadan, and the other people in the mosque try to make her eat them.
Many mosques have Arabic calligraphy, and other art forms, decorating the walls and ceiling. Prayer mats also have patterns and pictures. Light sources contribute further visual stimulations. These can all disturb or distract those with ASD.
Oli likes to look at the Arabic calligraphy on the walls of the mosque. His parents would like him to join in the Salah, but he is too distracted by the calligraphy.
Mosques can become very crowded, particularly during celebrations such as Eid al-Fitr. This can be very stressful for those with ASD. Many mosques do not have air conditioning, causing them to become hot during the summer months. This can prove stressful for some people with ASD who dislike the feeling of their own sweat. Some people with ASD may dislike the feeling of the prayer mat on their forehead and hands, causing them to refuse to perform Salah. When food is offered at the mosque some people with ASD may refuse it as they have difficulty with its texture.
Jacob does not like the feeling of the prayer mat on his bare skin, so he refuses to perform Sujood.
Many strong smells can be found in the mosque, particularly due to the much practiced Sunnah of wearing perfume when visiting the mosque. Other common sources of smells in the mosque include incense, food, and body sweat. Some people with ASD may be overwhelmed by these smells, whilst others may seek the origin of the smells.
Mohammed likes smells. His father does not like to take him to the mosque because Mohammed goes up to people and smells their perfume. This has resulted in some bad reactions, making Mohammed’s father feel embarrassed.
Many activities in the mosque involve noises. Some people with ASD find noises distressing, particularly those that are high pitched or produce a lot of vibrations. The most common sources of distressing noise in the mosque are the Adhaan, Quran recitation, Salah, khutbah/lectures, and crowds. The Adhaan, Salah and Quran recitation can be particularly distressing for some people with ASD since they often involve high pitches and/or reverberations.
The Mu'adhdhin at the mosque Laila's family visits calls the Adhaan in a high pitched voice. When Laila hears it she begins to scream. Her family is unable to calm her down, and are forced to go home.
A common difficulty met by people with ASD is the inability to cope with sudden change. Mosque life and the Islamic calendar involve considerable change that can cause behavioural problems in those with ASD as a result of the distress such change causes. The main changes in the mosque that could cause distress for a person with ASD are:
Special occasions. These bring increased crowds, different decorations, and different activities (e.g. Taraweeh).
A new or different Imam, teacher, speaker, or mu'adhdhin
Physical changes - construction, changed decorations/furnishings, rearrangement of objects
Changing prayer times due to the changing seasons
Changing class times or activities
Boys changing from praying with their mother in the women's section to praying with their father in the men's section, and vice versa for girls
People with ASD may also be unable to predict change. If they faced a sudden change on one occasion they may expect that every visit to the mosque will also include that change.
Boredom in the mosque is an issue that sadly instantly receives cries of negative judgment, and the ilk of some in the community, yet it is a valid issue for which a person should not be judged. People with ASD need to understand the purpose of religious activities to be more willing to participate in it. Whilst other children may participate in religious activities to please their parents or others, few people with ASD will participate in an activity simply to please others. If a person with ASD does not understand the purpose of a religious activity they will often try to escape from it, and may exhibit distressing behaviours if they are unable to.
Didier's father is afraid of taking his son to the mosque because of his unpredictable behaviour. Didier sometimes becomes disruptive during jummah, crying and even pulling the hair of those sitting in front of him.
Knowing the Cause
In order to discover what the cause of your child's difficulty with attending the mosque is you need to keep a log or diary. Each time your child becomes distressed in the mosque, or exhibits inappropriate behaviour, write down these details, along with anything else you may find helpful:
Where did the incident occur?
What preceded the incident?
Who else was present?
What specifically did your child do?
How did you react?
You may record these details in any format you prefer. Here is an example:
Where did the incident occur?
The men's section of the mosque during Jummah
What preceded the incident?
The Imam began to lead Salah
Who else was present?
The Imam, myself and the congregation
What specifically did your child do?
Ahmed began to cry and pull on the prayer mat with his nails, loosening threads.
How did you react?
I tried to pull his hands off the mat but he began to scream, so I took him home.
After you build a regular record of all incidents you should begin to work out some potential causes of your child's difficulty. Whilst you may not be able to pinpoint the exact cause working out potential causes will provide you with options on which to base your strategy to address your child's difficulty.
Once you have worked out the cause, or potential causes, of your child's difficulty you are ready to develop strategies to address those causes in order to make visiting the mosque easier and more comfortable for your child, and yourself.
It can be difficult at first to know which strategies to try. Your child may exhibit a particular behaviour for multiple reasons. Whilst the incident record you developed will provide invaluable guidance in this respect there will be a bit of trail and error.
Prepare your child
Visiting the mosque involves specific customs and rituals, such as Salah and Wudu. A child with ASD can find it difficult to remember or follow the sequences involved. It can be helpful to practice these procedures with your child. However, people with ASD can sometimes find it difficult to transfer a skill to a new environment. For this reason it is best to practice these customs/rituals within the mosque itself during a time when it is very quiet. It may also be helpful to have your child practice with other people, such as friends and family.
Remembering a sequence of actions or events can be difficult for some individuals due to the anxiety of being in a new situation. In such instances it can be helpful to ask friends or family to perform the sequence first, allowing your child to observe the sequence before doing it themselves.
As discussed under Sensory Stimulation above mosques are very stimulating environments, which can prove distracting from some children with ASD. This can make it difficult for your child to concentrate on the sequence. A visual representation is a fantastic tool to help your child remember sequences. It can be comprised of words, pictures, objects, or whatever is meaningful for your child. For instance, you could create a prayer mat for your child that presents the steps of Salah in pictures. This would assist your child in remembering the sequence of Salah. Even if your child is unable to perform Salah providing them with a visual representation of the other actions they should take when attending Jummah or prayer, such as taking off their shoes and sitting on the floor, enables them to participate. Ensure that you use the visual representation during your practice sessions so they are able to follow it independently when required.
Social Stories, developed by Carol Gray, are a method of explaining social situations to a person in the way they can best understand. In particular, it explains what occurs, what is expected, and why; usually in the first person format of "I do", "I like" etc. It can be helpful to read a Social Story to your child before they face the relevant social situation in order to help your child remember what to do. For more information on Social Stories please see http://carolgraysocialstories.com/ (Please note that this is a new site under construction, and will be available soon).
As discussed in 'Sensory Stimulation' above, people with ASD can find the high levels of sensory stimulation in the mosque distressing or distracting. It is possible to desensitise your child to particular sensations by slowly introducing the sensation, avoiding overloading them. However, it may often be necessary to accommodate your child's sensory issues, and to seek alternatives. It is recommended that you speak to an Occupational Therapist with experience in sensory integration in order to address your child's specific sensory issues with the mosque. However, here are some suggestions for common issues:
Tastes - if your child has difficulty with the tastes involved in visiting the mosque (generally during Iftar) it can be helpful to write a Social Story (see above) about how to politely refuse a food, and read it to your child. You could also bring along something your child likes to eat so they can still participate in Iftar without becoming distressed.
Visual - if your child has difficulty with visual stimulations try to find a mosque with less visual stimulation. Once in the mosque try to choose a position when you will not be directly facing visual stimulations. If the prayer mats are distracting, or distressing, bring along a plain mat for your child to use.
Tactile - if your child has difficulty coping with sweat find a mosque with air conditioning. If physical closeness is the problem try to find a quieter mosque. It may also be necessary to avoid taking your child to the mosque during busy times, like special occasions. If your child dislikes the texture of objects (including food and prayer mats) place a barrier between their skin and the object e.g. have your child pick up the food with a napkin, or bring a piece of cloth that your child likes to place over the prayer mat.
Smells - if your child is attracted to certain smells you could give them a bag or box containing smells they like, explaining that they are allowed to smell these, but not other things in the mosque. If your child is distressed by smells in the mosque you will need to speak with the Imam. Explain the issue to him and ask if it would be possible to not use incense on the occasions your child visits the mosque. The problem of overuse of perfume is more difficult to address. Try positioning your child some distance away from the main congregation, and avoid wearing perfume yourself. A preferable location would be near an open door or window that can provide fresh air.
Sounds - if your child has difficulty coping with sounds try getting them to wear headphones or earplugs that dull the sounds. If the Adhaan is the problem try to arrive at the mosque after the Adhaan is called. If high pitches and reverberations are causing difficulties for your child politely explain the difficulty to the person involved (usually the Imam), and request that they recite in a lower pitch, avoiding purposefully producing reverberations.
All senses - sensory stimulations are higher when the mosque is busier. For this reason it can be helpful to avoid the mosque during busy times, such as special occasions. Allah (swt) is most understanding, and does not punish for that which you cannot help.
As discussed in 'Routines' above, people with ASD often have difficulty coping with change. If you are aware that a change is going to occur it can be helpful to prepare your child by explaining the change before it happens. Once again a visual representation is very useful. For instance, if Eid is approaching you could show your child a picture of the place where you will be praying the Eid prayer, and perhaps a picture presenting the increased size of attendees. Communication with your mosque is important. Speak to them about your child's difficulty with change, and request that they notify you as soon as possible about any pending changes.
Children may behave inappropriately when they are bored. Bring along something to distract your child, making sure that it is something that does not cause noise or distract others (positioning yourselves at the back of the congregation can help to avoid disturbing others). It may be necessary to explain to your child that it is inappropriate to make noise in the mosque, or to run around. A video game (with the volume turned off or headphones used), book, or box of smells are examples of quiet activities that may distract your child whilst not disturbing others.
Encourage Positive Behaviour, and Motivation
It is important to encourage desired behaviours by making them enjoyable, and offering praise. For instance, if your child finds Salah difficult begin by asking them to do only one rakah, and praise them for their successful efforts. Slowly increase the degree of participation over time. Some people prefer to have their child join in towards the end of Salah, so they may finish with the congregation.
Make sure you take your child out of the situation before they exhibit distress. If you wait to remove your child from the situation until they show distress you will inadvertently teach your child that they must behave in this way to escape situations, resulting in an increase in the occurrence of inappropriate behaviour.
As discussed in 'Boredom' above, people with ASD may not be motivated to participate in an activity to please others. Some children with ASD may be able to understand the religious philosophy involved. Try explaining it to your child in a way they can best understand. However, it is important to also explain to your child why other people have different beliefs or your child may try to impose faith practices on others. However, many children with ASD may not be able to understand religious philosophy. In such cases a physical reward is useful to motivate participation. An example would be explaining to your child that they can play on the play equipment outside the mosque after participating in prayer. This can best be done by use of a visual representation, such as showing a 'before' picture of prayer, and an 'after' picture of the playground. Children with ASD may also be motivated by taking a position of responsibility. For instance, you may be able to arrange for your child to collect and put away Qurans, or help to roll up prayer mats.
Manner of Communication
Ensure that you communicate with your child with ASD in a simple and straightforward manner. People with ASD may often find it difficult to understand idioms and indirect speech. Whilst your child may use complex wording this does not necessarily mean they understand it. People with ASD may also need longer to register information, so explain ideas one at a time, with a gap in between to allow your child time to digest the information.
Manage Your Reactions
Your reactions impact your child's behaviour. If you exhibit anxiety in the mosque, perhaps out of anticipating your child's inappropriate behaviour, your child will usually pick up on that, and respond with distress themselves. If you wait to remove your child from a situation until they exhibit distress you may inadvertently be encouraging this behaviour, teaching them that they must behave in this way to escape situations. It can be useful to observe your child in the same situation with a different person in order to see if they behave differently. This will give you information on whether your reactions are involved in your child's behaviour.
There may be multiple factors causing your child's difficulty with attending the mosque. It is difficult to address multiple factors at once. Prioritise and work on one issue at a time.
Even with the ideas and information contained in this article you may find it difficult to attend the mosque with your child with ASD. In such cases it can be very helpful to consult a professional, such as a psychologist or occupational therapist experienced in teaching skills to those with ASD.
Communicating with your Imam, and asking for the accommodations or help you need (or suggests thereof), is critical. If your Imam is not understanding or receptive then it is time to find a new mosque.
Make sure you involve all those involved in this aspect of your child's life - friends, family etc. This ensures that your child receives consistent messages, and helps to share the responsibility.
Involve Your Community
Visiting the mosque is a community activity. If your child is to be properly included then the community needs to be understanding and inclusive. Speaking to the Imam is critical in this. If the Imam is understanding and inclusive then they are more likely to pass this same understanding onto the community. The Imam is also a reflection of the community e.g. an understanding and flexible Imam attracts like minded people to the mosque.
Spreading awareness in your mosque is something not everyone likes to do, but keep in mind that it is very helpful to making your community and mosque more inclusive, not only for your own child, but for others. You may like to present a talk about it yourself, or may ask your Imam to speak about it. You can ask to remain anonymous. There are also videos available that can be shown at your mosque.
The National Autistic Society n.d., How to write a social story, The National Autistic Society, London, viewed 10th December 2014, < http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/strategies-and-approaches/social-stories-and-comic-strip-conversations/how-to-write-a-social-story.aspx>.
The National Autistic Society n.d., The National Autistic Society, London, viewed 5th December 2014, <www.autism.org.uk>.