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Kids on the Autism Spectrum: Bike Riding

What is a biking family to do when not all of our members are able to ride?

Milestones that are met by our children are documented and recorded—our child’s pediatrician informs us of when those milestones typically happen based on recorded data that coincides with a particular age.  Baby should be rolling over at six months old, walking at around one, at three years old should be able to speak in multi-word sentences and by four years old should ride a tricycle.

Every parent has expectations of their children crossing milestones around the same age that they themselves crossed that milestone.

Walking.

Talking.

Loosing teeth.

Grandparents are called to confirm, “Do you remember when I lost my first tooth?”

I grew up in a bicycling family; our family would go on week long bicycling trips while other families went to Disney World. As an adult I want to share my love of bicycle riding with my children. But it’s a milestone for my child, L, who is on the Autism Spectrum that doesn’t come easy.

Like other parents I tried the scooter bike when he was three years old. While the other three-year-olds scooted by, our experience resulted in meltdown after meltdown. The meltdowns by children on the Autism Spectrum are worse than a meltdown by a neurotypical child; there is a lack of communication and there is no compromising.

Needless to say, we gave up on the scooter. 

At six years old, we got him a bike with training wheels. He didn’t have the core strength, like many other kids with Autism, to balance on the bike. Even with the training wheels it was difficult. Not only does he need to learn to balance but he also has to combine the foot movement while looking where he’s going. It’s a lot for him to process. And these things don’t come naturally to him. He never enjoyed the time spent on the bike and often I would find myself wondering, “Why are we doing this?”

The bike lived in the shed. Every once in a while we would drag it out to practice.  

My younger neurotypical son would get on a bike and instantly know what to do, like many other children his age. It’s heart breaking to watch your older son struggle, with everything.

L is nine now and finally is at a point where is seems like we could teach him to ride. He mastered balancing on a balance beam just this past year. He can stand on one foot and hop…yes, he’s crossed milestones that children younger than him crossed years ago.

Sadly, he’s too big now for a child-sized bike with training wheels and that seems like the only sure way to teach him. He’s not big enough for an adult bike that we could put adult training wheels on in order for him to learn how to ride a bike. I’ve talked to both local bike shops and for over $500 dollars we could have a custom bike built for him, but that’s not in our budget. 

As his mom, it breaks my heart to see a milestone that comes so easily for everyone else to once again be something that is so hard for L to conquer. I just wish he could catch a break. If you or someone you know that has experience teaching a child on the Autism Spectrum how to ride a bike please pass this article on to them, I'll take all the advice I can get!

Gretchen Schock is a mom, a writer, yoga instructor and photographer. Check out her creative writings and crafty goodness on her blog, www.CocktailMom.com. Or come to a yoga class and be inspired! 

Kimberly McMullan February 07, 2013 at 11:08 AM
I live in Germany, where cycling is common. It is my primary form of transportation for bringing my children to school and kindergarten, doing the shopping, going to the playground, etc. We only use the car for long distances. Fortunately, Germans (and the Dutch) have many different types of bikes available. For about $125 I bought a one-wheeled removable tandem bike for my autistic son, who was 3 1/2 at the time. I was worried he would jump off and run off when we were stopped at a traffic light, but he never did. He LOVED it from day one, and he is still on it now at 6 1/2. There is a bar that extends from the back of my bike, over my back tire, then turns into handlebars for Sam. The rest looks like a regular child's bike with a back wheel and pedals. He didn't pedal much the first few years, but is starting to help more now. We go on long rides on it, and have a great time with the whole family. I think eventually he will be able to get his own bike when he is stronger and has the concentration skills to pedal, steer, go where we want him to! You might speak with a good bike dealer about ordering something like that for your son. There are also tricycles for larger children and adults (though this doesn't solve the concentration and strength problems) and trailers designed for larger children. You may try contacting disablilty advocacy groups (not necessarily autism-specific) for help locating a dealer or Google "disabled cycling" or something. Good luck!
Gretchen Schock February 07, 2013 at 06:31 PM
Hi Kimberly! Thanks so much for reading. I know exactly what you are talking about, the tandem extender bike. We were looking at those a few years ago and my son didn't quite have the balance at that time to be able to do it. It actually would have been dangerous for me as he would pull my bike down when he began to fall. Sadly he's now too big for that option. I'm been toying around with the idea of putting him on a traditional tandem. Thanks for the advice on the advocacy groups- going to look into that right now. Be well! Gretchen
Elizabeth February 08, 2013 at 12:17 AM
I have a child on the autism spectrum that learned to ride his bike last year aged 9. Therapy ACT have a program called Wacky Wheels especially designed for autistic kids. It took time and patience but he now loves his bike and rides to school every day. Wacky Wheels have bikes there. Basically they are just appropriately sized bikes with the pedals removed. They first learn to kangaroo hop around the gym on the bike learning to balance. We were able to take the bike home to practice between sessions. Once they get the balance right and can scoot along quite well they move to a bike the same size with pedals. It took time and then he would only ride his bike for Jim. Unfortunately he only felt safe with him. Then we got past that and he would ride with Mum but only on the grass (you will get fit running after him) and then eventually he rode on the bike track just on the flat bits. Then he gained the confidence to go further and faster. At 10 he rides his bike to school daily. It has done wonders for his confidence and independence. It took time but thanks to the Wacky Wheels program we got there.
Sarah Wayland February 08, 2013 at 02:48 AM
My son (who has developmental coordination disorder/dyspraxia as part of his profile) learned to ride his bike when he was 10 using the Pedal Magic approach. It took us a few days, but it really worked! Here's a link to the Pedal Magic site: http://pedalmagic.com/ I know this looks like link trolling, but I swear, Gretchen, it really was amazing.
ConteeRdSauropod February 08, 2013 at 03:16 AM
Investigate adult trikes! Here's one in good condition.. http://baltimore.craigslist.org/bik/3596888090.html
Gina February 08, 2013 at 10:49 PM
My son is also on the spectrum and cannot quite catch on to riding and last week I put him on one of these to try. He's 9 yrs old and average size. He rode easily and told me how fun it was. He loved it!! We'll be getting one soon. Good luck! http://www.walmart.com/ip/Schwinn-Meridian-Tricycle/5679542
Gretchen Schock February 10, 2013 at 01:33 PM
Hi Elizabeth, thanks for reading. Is the Wacky Wheels program a local program? Do you have a link? Congrats to your wee one for learning to ride and now riding to school, that is awesome!
Gretchen Schock February 10, 2013 at 01:39 PM
Seems interesting Sarah. Sadly the websites says that it is not for Mac users, we are a mac house. I'm intrigued though.
Gretchen Schock February 10, 2013 at 01:43 PM
We were thinking of the adult trike option but after viewing pictures online my son said that he didn't want a bike that doesn't look like everyone else's. He is at that age where he is becoming very aware of the many things that are different for him compared to his peers, it started with handwriting and has moved on to the slanted board he uses that no one else in the class uses to the sensory pillow he sits on.
Gretchen Schock February 10, 2013 at 01:54 PM
Hi Gina, thank for reading. I wish we could try the trike in real life before purchasing it. I'd also like his to try this as well http://www.walmart.com/search/search-ng.do?search_query=recumbent+bike&ic=16_0&Find=Find&search_constraint=4171
Hal Eagar September 16, 2013 at 10:27 AM
On more in the same boat. The most useful though I get from this is that I may just need to wait a couple more years, (age 6 now)and he'll just have to deal with the fact he can't jump on a bike like his friends. But it's frustrating for him. I've been looking at cheap tandems ($250) at wallmart and target. That would do for family trips, but not by himself, so it's only a half solution. One thing not mentioned here yet is the Gyro Wheel. It looks like it was not a hit (probably due to the cost $100-$170) and not highly available, but toysrus online has them. But I'm thinking about getting the "16 wheel even though it costs twice what a 16" bike does. http://gyrobike.co/ Practice on a stationary bike is probably also useful, and good for ASD kids too. I remember having pretty much the same issue as a child but bike riding was so crucial to neighborhood socializing my best friend taught me when I was ~9yr old. My parents were obviously aware I was not ready for one and so I din't have one. But we built one from spare parts, and somehow he taught me, I need to go find him and say THANKS! But the point of that story is desire on the child's part is crucial, you clearly understand low frustration tolerance and meltdowns, so don't push something only you are excited about or that's where you will end up. If they really want it and are ready to go through some frustration to get there, go for it. But get some help from other patient parents or friends.

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