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.