ASYRAAF Zakwan Mohd Zaini was diagnosed with having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of six when his family was living in Manchester, England. It was in 2006 and his parents were pursuing their post graduate studies there. Up until then Asyraaf Zakwan hadn't started speaking and had problems communicating and interacting.
Upon being diagnosed, Asyraaf Zakwan began numerous therapies for speech, communication and behavioural skills and his parents given training to cope with a special child -- all supported by the local government -- and Asyraaf Zakwan began to show improvement.
When they returned to Malaysia in 2010, his parents made the effort to have him continue with various types of therapy programmes according to his needs. But one aspect was lacking -- the spiritual aspect.
“We couldn’t find a place to send a special child like Asyraaf Zakwan for religious classes and learn to read the Quran. We were staying in Petaling Jaya, then. There were no programmes at the local mosques. My wife was working at the University of Malaya (UM) and we got to know about the Centre of Quranic Research (CQR) on campus. We decided to collaborate and thus begun a pilot project in 2012 that aimed to provide special needs persons Quranic education,” said Asyraaf Zakwan’s father, Mohd Zaini Mat Abas.
The pilot project was focused on providing classes for autistic children that was conducted by volunteers from UM’s Academy of Islamic Studies, which kicked off the effort to create special-purposed methods in learning the Quran, ibadah, adab and seerah. It also resulted in the setting-up of the Foundation of Quranic Education for Special Needs Children (also known as FAQEH Foundation), which Mohd Zaini chairs.
“Parents are qudwah hasanah, or the role models in educating children effectively, as portrayed by Prophet Muhammad. In this context, there is no disparity between typical and special needs children. A typical child needs education and guidance from his or her parents in order to become a magnanimous person. A special child needs no less. Parents are responsible for ensuring their child with special needs is not deprived from receiving Quranic input in cultivating the ‘living with religion is beautiful’ concept,” said Mohd Zaini.
However, this is easier said than done, he said, as there is a severe shortage in the number of Quranic educational institutions for special children coupled with the assumption by the community that religious education is not obligatory for special children. “And there is a lack of awareness and skills among asatizah (religious teachers) in teaching children with special needs,” he remarked.
“With the establishment of the foundation, it is our biggest hope that Quranic education for children with special needs will take place in an environment that is conducive and well-suited to their requirements. It is also our aspiration to assist parents in ensuring their special children are a part of the future Quranic generation,” he said, adding that the foundation is an initiative to open up opportunities for them to learn and understand the contents of the Quran.
Mohd Zaini stressed that FAQEH Foundation is not an entity that targets to establish commercial religious classes for special needs children but its charter is more towards developing effective modules/curriculum which fulfil the requirements of Quranic education for special children, develop the human capital who teach with passion and be the meeting point for the community, relevant authorities and parties like research institutes and the academia that are interested to provide religious education for persons with special needs.
FAQEH Foundation secretary Zaharatul Sophia Mohamed Amir Abas said the entity currently runs model classes at two locations: in Petaling Jaya in Selangor and Nilai in Negri Sembilan. In Nilai, where its headquarters is located, there are 28 students with learning disorders like autism and Down syndrome ranging from the age of five to 33 and four teachers.
“Children with these disorders cannot follow programmes made for typical students; they are visual learners and absorb best through observation and through actual experience.
“They each have their own education plan which is drawn in accordance to their abilities and needs. Parents need to be involved to carry out the lessons at home too if the lessons are to be effective. Even children who are non-verbal can take part in the programme,” she said.
“There are four parts to the programme carried out at the FAQEH Foundation in Nilai. The first is the basics of ibadah where students are taught how to perform wudu (ablution), recite zikir and carry out physical exercises for left and right brain development.
“For wudu, we use water in spray bottles just like those used during hajj in Mekah. If the student cannot perform wudu on his/her own, we demonstrate how by assisting the student do it. When we do this every time they hear the call of azan for example, they would associate the act with the call of prayer,” said Mohd Zaini.
The Tahfiz Akhyar module is targeted to help those who are non-verbal to memorise the Quran. Among the key elements of the module is having students listen to Quranic verses repetitively through the use of a digital learning pen and checking for recognition through the visual word arrangement and word matching.
Tilawah Asyraaf, meanwhile, helps students recognise Arabic letters/ Quranic alphabets in both individual and joined forms based on what they hear during the previous module.
Lastly, Tahsin Ibadah teaches the more highly-functional special needs students to perform basic ibadah like solat, zikir and doa. “During this slot the asatizah (teachers) will coach the children on the correct movements and the recitations of the verses for prayer,” said Zaharatul Sophia.
Note: This article is the second of a four-part series on special education.