Many children with Autism struggle with learning to ride a bike.
The senses that perceive where our heads and bodies are in relationship to the earth’s surface (vestibular) and where a particular body part is and how it moves (propioceptive) can be off-kilter in Autistic kids.
These senses are of paramount importance when riding a bike, a skill that requires complex integration of balance and movement. For this reason, many children dealing with Autism will never learn to ride a bike.
Parents of an Autistic child should avoid the use of training wheels when teaching their son or daughter to ride.
Training wheels remove the most important element of learning to ride from the equation. A child on a bicycle with training wheels is not improving their ability to balance on a bike. In fact, they’re not testing that skill at all.
A bike with training wheels only emphasizes the pedaling skill which can be the most challenging part of learning to ride for an Autistic kid. What’s needed for success is an approach that breaks down the individual skills required to ride into more manageable steps.
Balance should be learned first before the focus moves to steering and ultimately pedaling.
A popular approach in Europe that is gaining momentum in the United States is teaching kids to ride using a balance bike. The balance bike is designed with no pedals, chain or sprockets. A balance bike is lightweight and smaller than a traditional pedal bike.
Most of these balance bikes are designed for kids age two to five, though there are models like the Go Glider from Glide Bikes that support kids who weigh up to 125 lbs. On a balance bike, kids propel the bike forward with their feet in the same way that people did in the early 1800s on the very first bikes (called the “dandy horse”) which didn’t have pedals.
This type of approach is perfect for an Autistic child as it eliminates all of the complexity of trying to pedal, balance and steer simultaneously. The focus is solely on exploring the feeling of balancing the bike. In time, most kids can learn to propel themselves with enough momentum to coast and balance on their own.
If your child is too large for a balance bike, you can create your own by finding a bike that is just a little too small for your son or daughter. Remove the pedals and lower the seat as low as it will go. The child should feel comfortable and in control of the bike and easily be able to put both feet on the ground. A bike that is obviously too small for your child is better than one that is a little too large.
A true balance bike is the best option for kids six and under because they are much lighter and easier to control than a 12” bicycle with pedals.
The fast progress you see on the balance bike might compel you to rush the graduation to a pedal bike. Do your best to resist that urge and give your child ample time to explore their newfound skill without complicating the experience with pedals. Rushing forward too quickly can result in frustration that will undo all of the good work you and your child have done thus far.
Once your child decides they are ready, you can graduate them to a pedal bike. The best way to do this is to find a gentle, grassy slope to ride down where they won’t have to create their own momentum.
Here are a few other tips to make your child’s cycling journey as painless as possible:
- Let your child select the helmet they will wear. They’re more apt to accept wearing a helmet as part of the experience if they connect with it.
- Resist the urge to control the bike for your child. Let them push it and balance on their own.
- Erase your expectations. We all want our child to succeed but often that results in making them feel as though they failed.
- When they say they’re done, they’re done. No use forcing a child to learn to ride. Bike riding should be fun!
- Practice in a place that is safe and has as few distractions as possible. Practicing at a basketball or tennis court works great because it’s level and there is no traffic.
Teaching a child with Autism to ride a bicycle with a balance first approach can be the difference between success and failure. The sensory overload some experience when learning to ride can be a major obstacle. Breaking the process into steps that don’t tax a child’s gross motor skills offers the best chance to help your Autistic child become a bike rider.
Sherry Mabry lives in San Antonio where she does her best to keep her head above while PTA meetings, Girls Scout events and the challenge of managing a family and a small business keep her going non-stop.
She’s the owner of Balance Bikes 4 Kids (www.balancebikes4kids.com), a website dedicated to helping parents help their children learn to ride a bike in a way that removes the fear and replaces it with fun.