Attitudes toward autism in the Muslim community

Managing a chronic health condition, be it diabetes or depression, is never easy, and the attitude with which a person approaches a long-term health problem is intimately tied to his/her faith. It seems, however, along with serving as an anchor and a source of refugee, many Muslims’ iman discourages them from taking a pro-active approach when it comes to battling health problems.
When asked to describe illness, at least one-third of Muslim survey respondents used phrases such as a ‘test from God’ or a ‘part of life’, and consequently, a ‘part of being Muslim’.

So it appears that a sizable chunk of Muslims consider disease a litmus test of their devotion to and trust in God; this resigned, passive attitude flies in the face of some of the fundamental traditions of the Prophet, who advised us to care well for our bodies, and contradicts Qur’anic guidelines on maintaining a balanced lifestyle grounded in moderation, eating food that is tayyab and halal, and abstaining from self-destructive habits such as smoking and consuming alcohol.

For illnesses that carry community-wide public health implications, the government can implement tenable solutions: water purification to eradicate cholera, immunizations to prevent disease, and smoking ordinances to obviate the risks of second-hand inhalation. For health problems that neither legislation nor a quick trip to the family doctor can resolve—placing a broken arm in a cast or undergoing a routine surgery for appendicitis—a more systematic treatment plan is required. Such long-term treatment is not only expensive, but also brings with it an emotional and/or physical lifestyle burden that many, especially those with a fatalistic attitude toward disease, are unwilling to shoulder.

Autism is one such long-term mental health condition. A developmental disorder which typically manifests itself in early childhood and, if detected early, can be effectively managed, autism demands ongoing, costly treatment and a disciplined, pro-active attitude. Cultural expectations to raise perfect children coupled with a resigned outlook, often causes parents of autistic children to alienate both the child and the family unit, rather than seek help. A condition such as this, with its broad range of symptoms and severity, also requires unique educational resources, and because such tools and expertise are missing in most American-Muslim communities, a family and its autistic child further retreat into isolation—for example, many forego sending their child to an Islamic school. And as one would expect, such shame and alienation does not leave a marriage unscathed ; autism often precipitates divorce with research showing significantly higher divorce rates in families with autistic children than in those with healthy ones.

As founder and editor of a blog called, Tunde “Aasiyah” Brazlik explains, “Some [parents] were lost and didn’t know where to begin after the diagnosis. Some were in denial, some were just right on track but needing moral support. There were many [though] who were hiding the conditions of their children due to cultural pressure.”

My research showed that there are a small number of intrepid parents willing to set their fears aside and come forward to initiate a dialogue about the disorder. One mother of two autistic sons commented, “I have wanted to start an autism awareness [group] at the [local] masjid because it [autism] is real and many families are faced with it.”

The recent horrific tragedy of the Pakistani-American mother in Irving, Texas who in a fit of desperation and depression killed her autistic children, should serve as a lightening rod to rally the American-Muslim community around the need to pull back the curtain on this mental health disorder. Whether or not autism is caused by consanguine marriages, Thimerosal (mercury) in vaccines, or some other pathogen is not the issue and is unfortunately where the discussion ends. As a community and as Muslims, we must to reach out to families who need support, whether it is a few hours of babysitting to relieve a parent, a meal, a ride to therapy, or simply lending an ear. Disease may be the will of God, but as an intelligent community we cannot look the other way with a sigh of resignation when God Himself has blessed us with the capabilities to treat long-term illnesses such as depression and autism.

Footnote: One parent asked me to share the positive experiences with her son using two different treatments: Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Sensory Learning Program. He now functions flawlessly with other children and adults and is a happy, well adjusted boy. For more information, please contact me directly and I will provide this family’s contact information.

(Photo: Camp ASCCA)
Ayesha Akhtar is Director of Policy & Research at HEART Women and Girls Project. HEART empowers women through: Health Education (increasing access to accurate information and resources about one’s body and health issues), Advocacy (advocating for culturally-sensitive health care services & education for faith based communities), Research (conducting research to generate data and information about the status of women and girls from faith based communities), and Training (training women and girls to become leaders of wellness in their communities).


  • aasiyah says:

    asalaam aleikum,

    Just wanted to congratulate you for writing this great article. It is long overdue. I had wrote an article “support and responsibility” it is a three part series regarding this issue. I am just glad to know you Ayesha, that you are fighting for the same cause. Our responsibility to forbid evil and promote good, and we must do everything in our power to protect these innocent dependent children. We must be the voice for those who can’t talk, or being denied to talk.
    May Allah bless you for your effort … ameen

  • delder says:

    AsSalaamu alaykum everyone.  I add links to sources that have helped some parents.  I hope the link to the book is okay here—just the introduction to the subject matter will in sha’Allah open channels of information.  – Debbie in Montana.

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