Teaching Autistic Kid to Ride a Bike

We have had great difficulty teaching our autistic son to ride a bike.  I am hoping that a reader of this post may be able to offer a suggestion or suggestions, as I do continue to believe in him, in his ability to master bike riding and the possibility for enjoyment that it holds for him.

At 10 our autistic son cannot ride any bike, whether it has 3 wheels, 2 wheels + training wheels, or whatever.  It is the combination of pedalling his feet, maintaining balance, steering the handle bar and paying attention to where he is going that is too complex for him.  Autistic kids often have trouble with tasks that involve coordination of several skills at the same time.  To teach them these complex skills it is necessary to break the task down into smaller, simpler, teachable skills and teach them individually at first.

I thought it would be easiest to teach pedalling first.  So we gave him a tricycle and later a bike with training wheels, the typical progression for a “normal” kid.  He did get pedalling.  It wasn’t perfect: he would pedal away, and not look where he was going, ending up toppling over on somebody’s lawn.  He sometimes surprised himself by accidently applying the brakes by pedalling backward.  These sudden jolting stops were a bit of a turn-off for him but not a show stopper.  Mastering steering and balance, however have proved more elusive.

We heard an interesting theory that children should be taught to balance before pedalling.  The thinking here is that it eliminates the need for training wheels, which can make the transition to 2 wheels easier.  There are specialty bikes available, called balance bikes, that have no pedals, and a hand brake.  The child is taught to glide down a gentle slope or self propel the bike using his feet.  Anything that reduces the number of skills we need to teach our son is a potential good thing.  So we tried the balance bike, however Nick did not get the purpose or enjoy it, and soon did not want to have much to do with the wobbly contraption.  The balance bike also is designed for a smaller child, and I think this was part of the problem, the seat was too low to the ground making leg propulsion and extension during gliding difficult.

Next step is to go back to working on pedalling, then add steering, and let balance go for a good while.  Our options: adult training wheels or adult tricycle.   Adult tricycles are very expensive, start around $300.    The strongest training wheels sold in the local bike shop will bend and buckle under Nick’s 100+ lb weight.  Quality adult training wheels are quite expensive, usually start at several hundred dollars.   Given a choice I would prefer the adult training wheels, mom has to dream that a time will come when we will be able to take them off.

My ultimate objective is to be able to go for a bike ride with him.  I have looked at tandem bikes, which run around 1K new.  I have heard that the rear rider needs to contribute to the effort: they are no good for lugging around dead weight on the back.  My son is like a river, always choosing the work path of least resistance.  He would be inclined to do nothing as the rear rider, and let me do all the work.  I am picturing myself, red in the face on some tiny hill pleading to no avail “PEDAL!  PEDAL!”….  I have also looked for an adult trailer but have been unable to find any for pulling lazy adult males.  Since I am a small person, being petite and 5’2” most likely neither a tandem bike or trailier would be suitable.

Do send me any suggestions you have for teaching bike riding to my autistic son.  Your input will be most appreciated.


About lifewithautistickid

I am a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA), with an MBA and BA. I have been fortunate to have had an extraordinary life with an autistic kid. I have learned so much from him about people and life in general. I want to make a difference by sharing my extraordinary experiences. Raising a son with severe autism and developmental disability has made me realize how we who are "normal" do not understand "disability". Instead of trying to "fix" people like my son by burying them in the community, I would like to see a society that respects and honors them for who they are. The potential is endless, in a world that can celebrate with sincerity, the dignity of the individual. Love and blessings to people of all "disability" . That includes you and me!
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19 Responses to Teaching Autistic Kid to Ride a Bike

  1. I definitely recommend a balance bike, but yes most of them are made for three year olds. If you could find one the right size (perhaps ask a bike shop to customise one for you) that might work. The handle bars on a balance bike are almost rigid – not nearly as wobbly as a proper bike. Apparently, the first bicycles were all balance bikes (I think they called them hobby horses), then some bright spark added pedals in the late 19th century.

    This (UK) dealer has some interesting bikes too: http://www.laid-back-bikes.co.uk/

  2. amy says:

    did you ever manage to teach your son to ride a bike? do you have any tips?

    • No at this point he still does not ride a bike. I believe that it still requires too much coordination for him. I may try again in the future, we do see changes in him as he gets older (he is now 12). I am looking for signs of “readiness” before I try again – and an interest in riding a bike. Some examples of readiness would be (1) I understand that I change the direction I am going by turning the handlebars, (2) I understand that I need to turn the pedals to move forward and stay balanced (3) I can pedal wheels and watch where I am going at the same time.

      • amy says:

        Thanks for your reply. I only just saw it today. We have been trying with our 5 year old and for now i would be happy if he just managed to push the pedals in a forward direction 😦 It can be so frustrating at times it seems as though he purposefully does the opposite of what we tell him. We will keep trying too. As every now and then things just ‘happen’ magically. Good luck to you.

      • We have experienced frustration with the very same. And also sudden breakthroughs.

        I had a thought last weekend. I tried a spinning class myself for the first time (almost killed me). In front of me – a mom with a special needs son. He was older, maybe late teen or early twenty. She did the class while he did it too, to his abilities. And he was actually pretty good.

        I thought to myself – this could work. N could do this. There is no balance issue. No steering issue. It would teach him to pedal. One skill. Fun music.

        Your son might be a bit young for spinning class, mine too, he is only 12, but the stationary bike might be a starting place to teach the pedaling skills basics.

        Wish you all the best and thanks for your comment!!!!!!

  3. LindseyR says:

    My autistic son is 8 and we are working again now to get him riding. We were told by REI to just unscrew the pedals from the bike to make it a balance bike. We are working on coasting and steering by having him coast towards a cracker and smash it with the tire. It is very hard to keep his interest! My daughter started with a scooter and gained balance easy that way and was able to transition to a bike with little trouble. I’ve considered getting him a scooter and trying that. Anyways, you are not alone! Thank you for sharing.

  4. I was told to work on balance first then add pedals. My son really hated being forced to balance so we had a very low level of cooperation. Therefore I have gone against all logic and I am teaching pedalling on a stationary bike. I met a lady who takes her Downs Syndrome kid to spinning class. She has him sit on the bike and pedal, he does not necessarily follow the instructions of the leader. However, he fits in OK, and she gets to enjoy some exercise. I think that is a perfectly awesome goal, for my son who, I am slowly realizing, may never go trail riding with me, because it is just too hard for him. N is 12, but very low functioning. Lots of sensory processing issues. There is no giving up. Because I think he can find enjoyment on a bIke, either riding outside or inside at the gym.

    I really appreciate your comment. Although I do not wish autism on any family it is great to know others understand. Many thanks!

  5. Shaneen says:

    I have been working with a non-verbal autistic child and teaching bike riding for the past 2 years. Initially, just putting the helmet on was quite an experience we take for granted. Now thie child who is 11 years old has gone from riding with training wheels to now being able to put his bike helmet on, take his bike, ride independently without training wheels and return his bike – finally removing his helmet. I am SO proud of his achievements. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, although to watch the progression, the persistence has provided him with some independence. I have had difficulties teaching him to use brakes.

    • That is very encouraging to hear! I am glad for the possibility that maybe N will be on his bike one day. Good for you – I know, it is not easy and it can take a lot of strength and persistence to get a small bit of progress. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Susan Rankin says:

    My son is 9, and we just gave up on a 2 wheel bike – purchased an adult tricycle like one he uses at his school. This was a tough decision as we are a big biking family. We tried everything short of one foe the full week out of town programs – gyro wheel, 1:1 PE, OT working with raised trainers, glide/balance bike with special needs bike specialist. What’s the point, really? I realized gaining independence, rewarding rides to ice cream shops and the like, learning to process navigation & rules of the road… This can be done as well on 3 wheels as 2 wheels. I realize you are not even able to make a 3 wheel bike work, so your situation is different. But for us, making the paradigm shift to a 3 wheel bike was liberating!

    • I hear ya! For us certainly 3 wheels is a “maybe attainable” goal. Two wheels ain’t gonna happen. It is too complex a skill set for my son. Glad to hear that you have made a successful transition to 3 wheels. I think that is awesome! Thanks for your comment!

  7. Hermes says:

    http://kck.st/1mNzfbu try this website.my son is 6 yrs old on a spectrum and would be excited for him to try this .i might get him one of this jyrobike.will be available in the US hopefully next year.

  8. Chilly says:

    I teach adults and children to ride bikes, and like others have commented, and you are finding, it really has to be balance first. I have taught many who can pedal a two wheel bike with stabilisers, or a trike, or a gym-bike, but no matter what you try, they cannot switch straight to a two-wheel bike unless they can balance.

    Sorry, but my best suggestion is to take a bike the right-size (sitting heavy on the saddle with feet very flat on the ground, knees slightly bent), remove the pedals, and if the cranks annoy remove them and the chain and chainrings.

    Then play games on the balance bike. You can play footie, catch, chase, hockey, racing downhill-jump off-run uphill, pushing with one hand waving with the other. Any game you can play on your feet or sitting down, try it sitting on a balance bike. No more than a few minutes at a time, stop and change to something else before he gets fed up. Turn your own bike into a balance bike too and let him follow you.

    If you then don’t succeed, you’re probably never going to. It does need co-ordination, and maybe it will be beyond his level.

    I wish you luck, I’m just about to start working with a four-year-old with non-verbal autism, having just taught her mum to ride.

    • Thank you for your wisdom. I like your ideas. I am discouraged at this point in time. I believe that N does not have the coordination/sensory integration skills. Yet something nags at me, some little invisible finger prods me to remind me that it might be me, and not N, who has the difficulty. It might be that I cannot teach him. But, with the right person, and/or with the right techniques and a healthy dash of perseverance, maybe he could learn.

      Thank you for what you do. And thank you for reading my blog!!! I am so glad there are people like you who are willing to take on the challenges of learning disabilities. It is a very difficult thing to do, but the rewards, In my estimation, they are beyond the scope of any measures I know of.

  9. Thx 4 the constructive feedback

  10. Michele says:

    Maybe these wheels could be of help. Good luck!

  11. Jimmy Huen says:

    I just found this blog … am wondering how’s your son’s progression. I have a 6 year old son with Autism and during these last couple of weeks I finally taught him to ride his bike without the training wheels that he was accustomed to for the last few months. Once the training wheels were off, he had no idea how to balance it and pedal at the same time, so I being 45 yrs old would go and hold his seat and guide him.

    The first time the training wheels were off, it was Thanksgiving Day 2016. It was a struggle, as he completely had no clue how to balance and pedal. It lasted 10 mins at most and we were done. The 2nd time, I took him to a park and guided him again on the trails. He made improvement that day with me continuously using my hand holding his seat and guiding him. It wasn’t easy, because my back was killing me as I had to bend down and strain it. But nothing will stop me from helping him to learn. I never gave up. The 3rd time, we went to a nearby elementary school during the weekend of Christmas 2016, and again he made lots of progress that day as I could literally not having to hold his seat anymore, and was just staying real close behind him to catch him when he fell, because I need him to learn that we don’t have training wheels anymore and he would fall if he leans to far or with too slow a speed … and he fell quite a bit. But one thing I am so proud of him is that he never let the falling phased him, he got right back up every single time and immediately climb back on the bike. I couldn’t be more proud, as I think that trait alone will get him far.

    The 4th time was the day before new year eve a few days ago; he was riding it unassisted, with me following him close behind just in case I can foretell a big fall. He got it … he can ride a bike now. The 5th time, I took him to a park with a very big loop, about 2 miles minimum, and he rode the entire loop only fell because he was looking back at me for desperately running to try to catch up to him LOL … The 6th time was New Year’s day 2017, and I took him back to the nearby elementary school and now he’s jumping down the curbs with the bike and riding up a slope on the other side etc …. I am just so PROUD.

    Every autistic child is different, but I think we should never give up… it might take yours much longer, but we can all hope that one day something will click and he will make that leap of progress you so desire. Best of luck!!!

    Jimmy & Jurhiah

    • Your comment sounds totally promising to me – and you definitely should be proud! Riding a bike is actually a complex skill, and your son’s progress tells me that he has the capacity to master them. In my son’s case – he simply does not have the cognitive capacity to coordinate the senses of vision, balance and physical exertion. He can pedal, but not at the same time, balance or focus on where he is going. He can balance, but not at the same time, pedal or focus on where he is going. The visual part – the focus on where am I going – seems to be the major elusive element. The purpose of riding a bike completely evades him. He can imitate the motions, but without an understanding of or desire to go for a ride, the imitation skills do not take hold.

      Part of every autistic kid being different is the need to recognize that some kids are unable. My son is unable. It is not a matter of giving up, it is a matter of embracing the child as he or she is. I would never give up on my son’s ability to live a happy life, but I have definitely had to come to terms with limitations on the skills he is able to acquire. Sounds like your child might be capable of more than you know.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Jimmy Huen says:

        You hit the nail on the head, very eloquently written. I know exactly what you mean. Every Autistic child is different and there are and will be things I wish my son can do but will have to accept and come to terms that he’s not capable, just like with biking and your son. I hope you found something else just as exciting that he can have the capacity to perform and enjoy.

        We as parents of autistic kids will always be challenged in providing the best environment and experiences so that our kids can grow up to be happy and a contributing member of society. As long as we reach, or attempt as hard as we can to reach that goal, then we are as best as we can be. Parent to parent, best of luck to you!


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