The Autistic Muslim Experience

Said Shaiye

You might not know this but being autistic means we’re sensitive to lights and noise. Sensitive might be too light of a word. Try: they overwhelm us.

By Said Shaiye

Sorry brother, I can’t really stop and talk. I have somewhere to be. It was good to see you!

I don’t feel good about lying inside the House of Allah, but that’s what I inevitably find myself doing every Friday. Seeing a familiar face may be relieving for most people; it brings dread to my autistic mind. Why? Small talk.

Small talk is our kryptonite. There are few things in this world more disconcerting to my autistic body than loud spaces and small talk – even worse when you combine the two with fluorescent lights.

You might not know this but being autistic means we’re sensitive to lights and noise. Sensitive might be too light of a word. Try: they overwhelm us. I can hear a piece of paper rustling on the other side of a crowded café as if it’s right next to my ear. I can simultaneously hear every conversation that’s happening in that café. Imagine living your life like this, your mind not knowing which piece of information to prioritize. Often, I am overwhelmed, and I must retreat to my Fortress of Solitude (my apartment, relax, I’m not superman). Although, being autistic is kinda like having superpowers you can’t control.

Superman learned to control his super-hearing so that he wasn’t overwhelmed by ever voice on earth simultaneously talking. We have no such advantage, so we carry noise cancelling headphones wherever we go. But people ask a lot of questions when you don’t appear autistic (which is a notion I wish would just go away – what the hell does that even mean?) & you’re wearing headphones inside a Masjid.

Brother don’t you want to benefit from the Qutbah? Why are you wearing headphones?

Well, yes, I do, but you see, I can hear your fidgeting son on the other side of the room, his coat, the way it rustles, just as much as I can hear the dude next to me clearing his throat exactly every four and a half minutes, on top of that, the fluorescent lights are absolutely killing me, and I can’t even wear sunglasses because that will raise too many questions – like are you on drugs, are you hiding red eyes, are you just too cool, etc – so I need these headphones to lessen the volume of all that noise that is flooding my brain and is preventing me from hearing a single word that the Imam is saying, Brother.

But I can’t really say that in a single breath, and I can’t answer any of those questions without them leading to more questions, questions I’ve heard a million times – mainly, WOW, I would have NEVER thought YOU were AUTISTIC, Masha Allah, YOU DON’T EVEN LOOK AUTISTIC.

Yeah, bro, I’m tired. I write, thank God. I write. I hope people understand the things I write. Because I don’t have the energy to say much out loud these days.

May Allah forgive me for intentionally showing up to Friday prayers late, so that I can catch the last wee bit of sermon before it’s time to pray. Because for the life of me, I can’t sit in a packed masjid for 1+ hour while my mind struggles to process all the visual and auditory stimuli around me.

I was gonna write this for like Muslim Matters or something but they’ve never accepted any of my writing, which tells me I’m either not a good enough writer (which I know not to be true) or they don’t like my style (which is whatever) or I’m not Muslim Enough (which I have no idea what that means, kind of like you don’t look Autistic) or maybe I’m not the Right Kind of Muslim Enough (which I mean too Black, not using enough Arabic, didn’t learn enough of our religion & don’t come across as some kind of religious scholar), or blah blah blah, who knows.

Either way, I’ve never liked the tone of the pieces I read on there. Too positive, too uplifting, too hopeful. I’m based in reality. A reality tinged with pain. A reality focused on holding on, no matter what. I live with a severe disability, I’m in active recovery, and I survived a war as a child only to be grandfathered into the Black American Experience. I had no formal education, other than memorizing Qur’an, before the age of 8. English is my second language. I once dropped out of college, and I _____times tried to take my own life.

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not positive enough for your Muslim publication.

I write for myself, and people like me. The people in pain. And there are so many of us. Regardless of where we are on our faith journey.

Anyway, I’m getting hungry.

I’ll see y’all around, I guess.

Aight one.

Said Shaiye is an Autistic Somali writer & photographer from Seattle who now lives in Minneapolis. He has contributed essays to the anthologies We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World, and Muslim American Writers at Home. He has published in Pithead Chapel, 580 Split, Entropy, Diagram, Rigorous, and elsewhere. His debut book, Are You Borg Now? (Really Serious Literature, 2021) was named a Minnesota Book Award Finalist in Creative Nonfiction & Memoir. He can be reached at www.saidshaiye.com

2 Comments

  • Welcome Said….and I welcome your hard-earned perspective and honesty.

    You have articulated without compromise, our painful daily struggles with the physically of the environment around us.

    Many of us are environmental empaths, and we’re overly sensitive to stimuli around us. Many of our natural abilities and gifts begin to shut down in childhood because we can’t deal with the overload.

    Meditation is good way to protect ourselves against overload, burn out, or meltdowns, because we can create a safe haven for us in our minds, where we can: stop everything, observe quietly with a calm mind, and reorganize ourselves into something that we really want to be, instead of something that we were forced to become by circumstances beyond our control.

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