Issue 85 / January - February 2012
Coping with Autism
"When I took my one-year old son to the supermarket, he never responded to other mothers' playful overtures. I used to tell them, 'Oh, he just woke up from his nap.' He was very unresponsive baby. We knew that something was wrong with him," expressed my close friend, on her early experience with autism. Most parents notice signs of autism in the first two years of their child's life. For most of them, it is hard to accept this disease and to overcome the psycho-social and spiritual challenges associated with it. Also, the majority of people do not even know what autism is.
Autism is a childhood cognitive disorder impacting brain development. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure. Numerous physical symptoms and disorders are common as well, including impaired motor skills such as walking, repetitive behaviors, and chronic gastrointestinal problems. The causes of autism are not known, but increasing scientific evidence pinpoints the genes involved in brain development. Many genes affect information processing in the brain. More than one gene is usually involved in this disease, so autism is a spectrum disorder, and it affects each individual differently and at varying degrees. The incidence rate of autism is approximately 1 per 150 children, and it is scientifically not clear, but boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls [1, 2].
When we visited them, I realized that my friend's son, who was 2.5 year old then, would not look at or talk to his parents or to us. Instead, he sat by himself in a far corner of the house and made bizarre vocalizations. He screamed when we tried to talk with him. Most of the time, he was sitting inches away from the TV screen when it was turned on and playing with the cable when it was off. He had low muscle tone and problems with fine motor skills, so he could not actively play like our son. Instead, he was repetitively flapping his hands or rocking his body. Sometimes he engaged in self-injurious actions like head-banging or hand pinching. His parents, especially his mother were depressed due to all his tantrums, crying, and behavioral problems.
Finding an appropriate setting for an autistic child can be difficult. His parents decided to send him to a day-care for half-days so that the mother could refresh her mind from all the problems, and the boy could learn to socialize and begin to talk. Just two days later, she called me, crying, and telling of his bad experience in the day-care. "The teacher couldn't figure out what to do with our son, and she put him in a room by himself. I think he is frustrated; he is more aggressive now." She blamed herself thinking she had not made a good decision, causing her son to suffer more. I realized that she needed psychological and spiritual support to overcome this difficult period. It was certainly difficult to have a child that did not socialize, communicate, or even look at you. But as a believer, how does faith inspire us in this situation? What counsel is given to all sufferers by the Holy Books?
The Qur'an says we are "tested" in this life with different levels of challenges, and only the rightly guided believers will deserve Paradise:
"We will certainly test you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and fruits (earnings); but give glad tidings to the persevering and patient: Those who, when a disaster befalls them, say, 'Surely we belong to God (as His creatures and servants) and surely to Him we are bound to return." (And they act accordingly.) Such are those upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy; and they are the rightly guided ones" (1:155-157) .
According to Islam, children with mental illnesses are considered as pure and innocent as angels. Parents who take care of sick children with affection and mercy are promised heaven. The merits accruing from such illnesses wash away all sins of the parents, and particularly those of the compassionate mother . Also, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, encourages us to find treatments and cures for any disease. He declared:
"God did not send down an illness for which He did not send a cure." 
The Bible many times describes children as a gift from God and reminds us that unhealthy children and adults are not sinners. Instead, God reveals His works on the human body with sickness and healing:
"Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him." (John 9:1-3)
After a long discussion of the above verses and others in Holy Scriptures, my friend and her husband refreshed their minds with positive thoughts and decided to search for a special autism center to lessen their son's symptoms and to increase his functional independence. They found a center only ten miles away. The center practices "Applied Behavior Analysis" (ABA) for the treatment of cognitive disorders. In this program, correct behaviors are rewarded with positive reinforcement, such as a snack, riding a bike, or going outside, and negative behaviors are ignored. By rewarding the positive, students lessen their aggressive or self-injurious behaviors, begin to communicate with their parents, and develop an internal awareness. When they become confident in their communication skills, they can learn anything with an ABA program. Within six months, my friend noticed a change in her son's behavior. "He, for the first time ever, looked at us and hugged us. My husband and I were both moved to tears," she said.
She observes that her son, now six, swims and plays with other children. He sounds out some words and practices more appropriate behaviors that they never thought they'd see.
Children with autism can come out of their shells by early diagnosis and intervention. If parents accept their child's behavioral problems and collaborate with professional centers at an early age, children can adapt themselves well to family and social life. With patience, family members and their autistic child can experience success. What is needed is a solid determination combined with true respect and compassion and a deep trust in the goodness and mercy of God.
Esen Bakhautdin is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Cell Biology, Lerner Research Institute, Cleveland Clinic.
1. National Autism Association: http://www.nationalautismassociation.org/index.php
2. Autism Society of America:
3. Unal, Ali. 2007. The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English, NJ: Tughra Books.
4. Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. 2010. 25 Remedies for the Sick, NJ: The Light, Inc.
5. Al-Bukhari (1980), Jami al Sahih.