We are 2 weeks away from welcoming the month of Ramadhan, a holy month for Muslims around the world as our journey of spiritual purification begins.
The most special practice done in this holy month is the act of fasting. Specifically in Malaysia, we see children from as young as 7 years old start getting trained to fast for as long as they can. For children of typical development, it would be easier to explain to them the idea and reason behind fasting and to get them to just do it immediately when Ramadhan begins. However, this common method may not work for children on the autism spectrum.
Children with autism may not comprehend the reason for them to fast, let alone knowing how to actually do it. For some of them, the sudden change in their daily meal routine may be an overwhelming challenge to deal with.
So here are some general tips to help you prepare a child with autism on how to successfully perform the act of fasting. These tips can be implemented before Ramadhan arrives to ensure your child’s success rate.
Is my child ready?
Is your child able to tolerate waiting especially for a highly preferred choice (i.e.: food/toys/YouTube video, etc.)? Is your child able to understand basic “First Then” instruction (i.e.: “First circle time then snack”)? Is your child able to understand and follow basic verbal & visual instructions? If you answer “No” or “Not really” to any of the above points, consider teaching or helping them to strengthen the skill(s) required first before starting the fasting training to ensure greater success.
What do I need?
Social story to explain about fasting. Timer, “Wait” visual, “First Then” chart. Ultimate reward: Your child’s favourite food. Offering this as a reward for iftar (the breaking of fast) is highly recommended to help them associate the expectation (i.e.: fasting) with the reward (i.e.: pizza). This will then increase the success rate for the next repeated practices. Now, it is important to remember that this will not be the best time to expose your child to any NEW food. Our goal should be on teaching them to fast, not to increase their food repertoire.
Breaking down the skill:
We need to start at a level where your child is successful at.
1) Read the social story
2) Clarify expectation through the use of visuals and include the use of a timer to foreshadow the waiting time until it is time to eat.
3) Communicate the reward your child is “waiting” for.
4) You may start by expecting your child to fast for as early as 5 minutes (this duration may vary from one child to another depending on their current skill set). As your child “wait”/fast, he or she can be redirected to other activities to occupy their time. The timer should beep at the same time as the adhan (call to prayer) at sunset.
5) When the timer beeps, do encourage your child to listen to adhan if you live near a mosque or visually on a TV to help them understand that during Ramadhan, fasting ends when we hear the adhan at sunset. If your child is able to tell the time, it would also be advantageous to utilise this skill by telling the time of the adhan.
6) Then present the food to your child immediately to build the positive association for fasting. It is highly recommended that the time to receive the reward is not delayed.
7) Praise your child for fasting and repeat steps 1-6 every day to increase practice.
8) Once your child is successful, gradually increase the fasting period to eventually having them to start fasting from the adhan that comes at dawn.
Extra tips for success:
If your child seems to find it difficult to fast for a longer period in a day, consider these options:
1) Go back to a previously mastered duration and increase the practice at this level. Continue to reward your child nonetheless.
2) Offer “meal pass” to allow your child to communicate for a meal. This plan will need to be planned thoroughly. Consider your child’s age and skill sets to ensure appropriate plan is put in place. For example, an 8-year-old who had started fasting for the very first time may find it challenging to complete their fast for 6 hours straight. At this point, a “meal pass” can be utilised as an exchange for a meal which could come in a small portion. Ideally, this meal should help your child to consume a little amount of food so that the remaining hours left for fasting would be easier to go through. This meal should not be to replace their “reward” meal; otherwise, the fasting training will be negatively affected.
For the “ultimate reward”, consider using a “My Fasting Tracking” chart to track your child’s fasting record. Big non-edible reward can be offered in a weekly or monthly basis.
We hope this guideline will help you in preparing your child to learn to fast successfully.