Nikki Zumbach Harken is a member of Faith Lutheran in Shell Rock.  She writes a blog about life with her son Tucker, who is on the Autism Spectrum, “366 Days of Autism”

The following is her post on VBS:

VBS or Vacation Bible School was yesterday.  For the second year in a row Tucker was a helper – this year in the kitchen and he had a GREAT time.

This post is really about two things related to VBS.  One, what happens when we advocate and share and tell others.  Two, how VBS can be made ‘better’ for children on the spectrum.

First – what happens when we advocate, share, and tell others about what autism is.  Tucker was able to work with a wonderful woman named, Micki.  She knows Tucker – she has two grown sons of her own which by my standards, make her a bit of an expert in raising boys.  She would say she’s not – but her boys…er…men…are kind, responsible, giving, and compassionate. She raised ‘good men,’  so I believe she knows a little something about teenage boys.

She was amazing.  Yes, because that is who she is – but because three times during the day she checked in.  She asked how he was doing.  She reported that when he became overwhelmed he told her, “I’m going to the car to read my book…I’ll be back in a few minutes.”  She told me she was trying to only give him a few instructions at a time.  She remained positive even as he dropped grapes on the floor and spilled Grape Kool-Aid.  Last night he said, “I’m really tired but I had fun with Micki.”

Micki is one of the good ones of life.  She realized that he needs a bit more – but not only that.  She realized that her reaction towards him in any given situation would change how he felt about volunteering…and about church.

Second – how VBS can be better for children on the spectrum.  First let me tell you about the first VBS Tucker went to.  He was under the pews, hiding under tables, running down the hall – it was really the first time I saw him in an ‘intense’ environment.  It was the first time I saw my boy…well…not being my boy. I truly didn’t understand.

VBS in itself is overwhelming.  The music, the decorations, the crafts, the people, the excitements, the shouting.  Yet – it’s a great place to learn the most important lesson – God loves you.  A good friend of mine is estranged from Catholicism.  I was talking about how much I love VBS and she had a wistful look.  She said, “You know VBS is how religion should be.  God loves you. (PERIOD).  There are no qualifications…no semi-colons….no ifs, ands, or buts.  It’s just that simple.”

True.  Which is why it’s one of my favorite events of the entire year.  Gathering children to learn about love, what could be bad about that?

Overload.  Pure overload.

So, what would I do?

First, if the child is old enough (and able) allow them to participate in the experience in a different way.  Maybe they can be an assistant to a teacher or activity leader?  Maybe they could be responsible for getting crafts ready?  Maybe they could take pictures?  Maybe they could record video?  Maybe they could write the schedule?  Maybe e they could write the schedule?  Maybe they could walk around with a whistle informing others when it’s time to ‘switch?’

All of these ideas would allow a child to still be involved in VBS…but in a very different way.

Second, if the child still wants to be in a regular class what could leaders do to help that child?

  • Provide (or invite) headphones to block out some of the noise.
  • Be sure they are always on an end (or better yet – corner) while singing.  This will decrease the voices that enter their area.
  • Put them in the front row so there are fewer distractions.
  • Ask parents about food preferences.  They may not have allergies – but have specific preferences (texture issues).
  • Provide them with schedules and be sure there is always a clock (or watch) available.
  • Understand that they may not have the fine motor skills necessary for some of the tasks.
  • Use the child as an ‘example’ in the games portion.
  • Provide clear (possibly) written instructions for games.
  • Help them find partners for activities.
  • Provide a ‘safe, quiet’ space for them to retreat to when overwhelmed.
  • Develop a signal or word that gives them the freedom to retreat without penalty or question asking.
  • Provide a wobble seat during study/reading time.

These are just a few suggestions and I know I could come up with twice as many if I gave myself more time to think through the entire event.

Please don’t leave these children out of learning about God’s love.  Please show love and support these families.  Tucker has been heavily involved in two churches – both had amazing safe, supportive environments.  Both congregations supported our family in a variety of ways – and I cannot thank those people enough.

We needed their love.

And, to be honest, we all need someone like Tucker.

Also see:  Welcoming People on the Autism Spectrum to Worship

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. I've taught at, helped with, and/or run as a co-leader, quite a number of VBS programs. It is always much more of a revved up program than I am personally comfortable with. The kids get exhausted after a half day program. I do wonder about the wisdom of that, not just in regards to the kids with certain needs.

    • Great suggestions for kids on he high end of the spectrum. How about the lower end? My little guy who is non-verbal just got kicked out of his vbs because “he’s a distraction to the other kids”. These techniques are largely unhelpful for his situation.


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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.




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