It’s Like Riding an Autistic Bike

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Most kids learn to ride a bike, right? I did it at age, oh, maybe four. I was a quick learner and the youngest and my brothers easily “challenged” me to learn to ride for myself. Because I’m also athletic, it wasn’t a hard challenge for me.

For our kids on the autism spectrum, transitioning from a bike with training wheels to one without training wheels may not be easy.

Why are physical transitions hard for autistic kids?

Our kids have physical issues. They are typically not athletes. I believe it is because of their slow development, both developmental and physical.
For example, my son, at age nine, still does not jump off of a height of a foot or so with much confidence. And he’s nine. I’ve seen two year olds jump off of heights of over two feet!

Our kids are not comfortable with their bodies. They do not have the best balance in the world or the best hand-eye coordination. Their physical strength often lags as well.

When our child was young, our first OT said, “They simply have trouble finding their bodies in space,” – meaning the physical space that they occupy (not the other kind).

A year ago, I dedicated my child’s spring break to getting him to learn how to ride his bike sans training wheels. We went out every day and he worked hard to try to “get it.”

We practiced more a few weeks later during the last two weeks of May. This is a stretch of school that has state tests and therefore less homework.

How did my child do with this transition?

My child does things at his own pace – which is typically well behind his peers. He was still riding his toddler bike with training wheels at age seven. He was a little nervous about trying a larger bike, especially one without training wheels. He declined a “boy big” bike.

By age eight, he felt he was ready to try and we bought him a larger bike. We also convinced him it was a good idea to try it without the training wheels. A bike person told us he could put them on this larger bike but we wanted to try it without.

What were we up against?

We were trying to motivate our child. 

Because of our child’s slow physical development, he had always been a cautious child. Early on, were we encouraged to assist his physical development using various OT-related exercises and tasks that would help him discover how and why his body was moving around.

However, to this day, our child continues to be cautious. He runs but looks awkward. He rides a Razor but does no “tricks.” He plays baseball and soccer but avoids too much “athleticism.” He swims but has just recently learned how to swim in deep water.

How can a child learn something physical when they don’t understand their body?

What I did with teaching him to ride a bike without training wheels was to first accept that this was going to be a slow process. I gave him no deadline. When I was with him, I only offered encouragement. I stressed the positives. “Hey, you got to half a block this time!”

We just wanted him to do his best. Just because I learned these physical activities easily, did not mean my child was going to learn them on my schedule. He has his own schedule.

How did we start out?

First, my husband and I took turns pushing him off and running right next to him. We talked to him and kept a hand on his back. I think this made him feel more secure.

Second, we began on a patch of grass. Yes, it is harder to pedal on grass, but again the grass gave him more comfort. If he did fall down, he knew he was falling on grass and not pavement.

By the third “training session,” we graduated from the grass but kept running next to him.

And he had established a routine; he climbed onto the bike, we’d give him a push start, and begin to pedal the bike. We would hold onto to but more and more we’d find a few seconds to let go. I’d encourage him. “Wow, you’re riding all on your own!” (Said between huge breaths.)

Of course he fell, but he never got seriously injured. Perhaps one scrap or so, but that was it.

What should you look out for?

Our street has a problem. It has no sidewalks on one side. There are sidewalks on the other side of the street but there are power poles and sign poles in the way that made our child uncomfortable. 

For this reason, we started in the street. I wasn’t all that happy being in the street but we didn’t know what else to do after he had graduated from the patch of grass.

We took him out consistently. We didn’t give up and we didn’t let him give up. We told him little things like, “Hey, we’re no longer on the grass and that’s good!” or “You went one driveway all by yourself.”

We spun it, why not?

By June, our child was peddling consistently and stopping the bike without falling down. He was even turning around in big circles! More importantly, he was happy! And he was confident.

We got great exercise during all of this, by the way (running next to a child a block or two at a time is pretty good exercise!)

Today, he’s pretty much got bike riding all figured out. He still has a bit of trouble starting by himself (or maybe he just likes Mommy to give him that push).

We continue to practice and I continue to encourage him. It may seem like a little thing, but when my child with autism has a conversation with a typical child and the subject is bike riding, he can honestly feel included in the conversation.

Because he can ride a bike! How it all got there doesn’t really matter.

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