By: Christa Meland
When Rachel Casper’s now 11-year-old son was a baby, she was asked not to bring him back to her church’s nursery because he was “too much to handle.” That was in another state and before he was diagnosed with autism, but it’s something she's never forgotten.
In recent years, she’s met other Twin Cities moms whose autistic children have also been asked to refrain from participating in church activities. It’s ultimately what inspired her to create a specialized Vacation Bible School (VBS) for kids on the spectrum.
“That’s something every child should be able to experience if they want to,” said Casper, director of children and family ministries at Eden Prairie UMC, which welcomed and fully included her son from the first time she visited some years ago. “Volunteer Sunday School workers are not trained to handle kids on the spectrum, but our congregation is such a welcoming congregation and I knew we could live into this ministry of all are welcome.”
That’s exactly what the church did. For three mornings in late July, a couple weeks after Eden Prairie’s traditional VBS, Casper and a team of volunteers led “Adaptive VBS” for children with autism—thus living into the Minnesota Conference value of being inclusive in all aspects of the life of the church. Both types of VBS used the Jerusalem Marketplace curriculum.
Each day, participants arrived to a pictorial schedule for the day; they could visualize everything from the book the group would be reading to the craft they’d be working on to the game they would play—which helped them understand and anticipate what to expect.
All of the same crafts from traditional VBS—like beading and weaving—were included in Adaptive VBS, but in a different way. And a “story and stretch” time allowed the children to experience each story with their bodies.
At the end of each morning, the children built with Legos—which proved a great way to recap the story, even for those who didn’t speak. One day, they recreated the Last Supper, complete with a table, 12 goblets, someone in a wheelchair, and a robot.
Each day, a therapy dog joined the children for the whole morning—which proved even more valuable than Casper anticipated. Whenever a child was upset or didn’t want to participate in a particular activity, the child would go over to the dog, who provided a friendly, calming presence.
Because this is the first time the church has offered Adaptive VBS, they kept it intentionally small; there were four participants (three from outside of Eden Prairie UMC), ranging from 5 to 11 and from nonverbal to very articulate. This allowed the church to test out and refine the concept to ensure it was a positive experience for everyone involved. Casper plans to bring it back again next year with more kids.
The feedback from participants and their parents was overwhelmingly positive. One boy, who hadn’t been welcomed at his own church’s Sunday School in the past, loved telling his mom about what he did each day—and on the final morning, he asked her to take the long way to pick him up so he could stay longer. A mostly nonverbal girl, meanwhile, was saying “Amen” after prayers by the last day of Adaptive VBS.
Casper is quick to point out that Adaptive VBS wouldn’t have been possible without the many church volunteers and the expertise they brought to both the planning and implementation of the event. The Adaptive VBS team included a retired preschool teacher who had experience with autistic children, a retired occupational therapist, a special education teacher, a child psychologist, and someone trained in speech pathology. The team also included a man in his 60s who himself is on the spectrum—and Casper said his input was invaluable. He remembers and shared what it was like to be a kid who couldn’t speak and felt unseen.
“When you can’t speak, you get overlooked,” Casper recalls the man saying at one meeting.
More than anything, Casper wanted Adaptive VBS participants to feel seen and valued, and to know they are beloved children of God.
“I want them to feel the love of Jesus,” she said. “I want them to have the same experience as every other child.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church