As Easy As Riding A Bicycle?
A dad’s unsuccessful history of teaching his son to ride a bike.
I have a long history of unsuccessfully trying to teach my autistic son how to ride a bicycle.
When Kai was a toddler, he did not want to ride a tricycle. While most kids love pedaling as fast as their little legs can go, Kai rode only when we placed him on his trike, and even then he barely moved.
When he was four, he got his first bicycle. It was shiny and blue and had a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine on it. But even with training wheels, Kai never wanted to ride it.
When he turned five, my wife thought that a different bike might get him more excited about riding. Perhaps he needed one that was bigger and more comfortable for his growing body. She got one that was shiny and red and did not have any silly pictures on it.
He never wanted to ride that one either.
We tried using his love of numbers as motivation. Once my wife created a series of small flags, each with a different number on them, and lined them up alongside the path by Centennial Park. We hoped that Kai would be motivated to reach the next numbered flag and keep pedaling until he reached the end. My wife was at the finish line, waving the final flag, and yelling encouragement.
With Kai on the bike, I pushed and tried to spur him on. I did a lot of pushing but he did very little pedaling. And once he was off the bike, he happily ran to collect each flag.
We came to understand that, like many kids with autism, Kai has issues with his vestibular system that impair his spatial orientation. That means that he does not know where his body is in relation to the space around him. It makes this type of movement difficult for him, as he is easily scared when he does not have his feet on the ground. It is for that same reason that he doesn’t like to ride on swings.
This summer, we did not get a new bike. We haven’t created number flags. But we haven’t totally given up either.
We enrolled Kai in a bicycle riding class for children with special needs.
The NSSRA Bicycle Class
The Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association (NSSRA) offers scores of recreation services for children and adults with all types disabilities, impairments or disorders who live in the partner communities.
Last winter, we were thrilled when Kai learned to skate through NSSRA’s ice skating class. So, we wanted to see if they could help with his bike riding as well.
At the first class, Kai did not want to get on his bike. But, Kevin, the young man assigned to work with him, coaxed Kai to come out onto the course just to walk with a book on his head to practice his posture and balance.
Before long, Kevin introduced an interactive game and that was enough to get Kai on his bike. He didn’t pedal fast, and he was still using training wheels, but he pedaled.
The next week, the training wheels came off. It took some time to convince Kai to get on the bike, but when he was reassured that Kevin would be holding on, he finally gave it a try.
He didn’t ride fast, and he was wobbly. If Kevin didn’t hold on, Kai would not have been able to stay up. But that he rode at all was an accomplishment. The following week he rode with less trepidation.
Extra practice with Dad
Encouraged by the progress he was making in class, I took Kai out for some extra practice. I had to remind him often to keep pedaling. And I had to hang on tightly to his bike as his balance was off.
After awhile, Kai began to go faster. Running alongside, I was having trouble keeping up. The fact that it was a scorching hot day didn’t help. After imploring him to pedal faster all this time, I wasn’t about to tell him to slow down now.
“Keep it up!” I yelled as sweat poured down my face. He pedaled even faster.
“Good going!” I was out of breath. He kept up the pace.
“You’re doing great!” I sure wasn’t. My heart was pounding. How long was he going to keep riding?
Kai rode longer than I thought he would want to. I, meanwhile, managed not to collapse.
No, he did not get to the point where I could let go of his bike. His balance still needs work. He still can’t ride on his own.
But he wasn’t afraid to get on his bike. He rode faster than ever before. And he seemed to actually enjoy it.
What’s more, there’s still a lot of summer left to make even more progress. With the help of NSSRA, I still have hope that he will be able ride on his own.
I just hope that I live to see it.