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5 Things the Autism Experts Said My Son Would Never Do (Slideshow)

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5. Bike Riding

Video by the author

 

For a host of reasons (including, of necessity, issues of safety), many autistic children do not learn to ride bikes. Difficulties tracking moving objects (cars) and knowing what to do in traffic (just because the light is green doesn’t mean it is safe to go) make biking in the streets (i.e., not in the protected space of a parking lot or park) extremely challenging, especially for individuals who may have trouble coordinating their bodily movements with what they see and their thought processes.

There are a number of programs, some using specially designed bikes, to teach autistic kids to ride. We’ve also seen some parents teach their kids to ride with them on a “bicycle built for two” so the child doesn’t have to navigate traffic on their own.

My parents got Charlie a tricycle for his second birthday. He cried when we had him sit on it. He had no idea what to do with the pedals; at first, he seemed in danger of falling off. We taught him first just to sit on the trike and he stopped crying; Jim would push or pull the trike while I crouched down and held Charlie’s feet on the pedals. One day, a therapist set Charlie and the bike on a very small incline in front of our house, held up one of his favorite things (a colored square of paper) and cheered him on. Eager to get that colored square, Charlie pushed his foot on the pedal, without realizing what he was doing.

As he grew bigger, we switched him to a small bike with training wheels and Jim took matters into his own hands, taking off the training wheels over my worried protestations and teaching Charlie to ride in a local school parking lot. As Jim tells it:

Charlie succeeded in mastering the forward pedaling motion at the expense of backward brake-pedaling; a small price to pay but a challenge that prompted our adoption of the “bicycle rodeo technique” as our best shot at slowing/stopping his two-wheeler. For well over a year when it was time for Charlie’s bike to stop his left shoulder was clasped firmly by dad’s right hand. The rodeo lent a little extra frisson to our regular outings: we grew balanced; in sync; a team. We went on road, off road; he even went off-levee once and found himself hip-deep in the Rahway River covered by bicycle and calling for me in voice of profound conviction.

By age eight Charlie was able to squeeze his newly installed handbrakes: more patient discrete trials (“squeeze brakes”) in the selfsame school parking lot. Soon he was calling out “red stop sign” (and better yet stopping at the sight) and acquiring the grace and poise of a touring master. But then autismland weighed in with a less than gentle series of reminders that saw Charlie—among other antics—shuck his moving bike for a maraud in an unfamiliar yard in an unfamiliar town. On many occasions during that stretch he returned home so visibly distraught, as if to feel cheated by the fleeting joy of freedom in motion. Sometimes he showed no interest at all in his bike or the increasingly spontaneous-improvised rides we shared. I lived for them and was far from ready to willingly relinquish his spirited company.

Jim and Charlie ride bikes pretty much every single day. An average ride is usually 12 to 16 miles. Jim calculates that, in the past two years, they have biked at least 10,000 miles, the equivalent of biking from our house in north-central New Jersey to Mongolia.

One thing I can say after nearly 15 years on our journey in autismland with Charlie.

Never say never.

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74 comments

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4:12AM PDT on Apr 3, 2013

Thank you for sharing these photos of your son, Kristina, and your story of the challenges you and Charlie have overcome. I was born back in 1961, and not only was autism supposed to be vanishingly rare, but it was considered to be a male-only disorder which always involved mental retardation. So I, as a high-functioning female autist, slipped under the radar until I was in my early 40's. I had to do a lot of things just to "fit in" than I would have done if it had been just left to my inclination, and some of those are still etched in my mind: dentist trips in particular were horrendous!
I'm not surprised that Charlie has conquered his obstacles, because one of the biggest obstacles I've found is the low expectations others have of us once they find out we are autistic. But if we start, as I did, not knowing, then I was not limited by what I could do.
Alison

11:06AM PDT on Aug 16, 2012

each child, no matter WHAT issues they may have, is an individual and will do thing INDIVIDUALLY. one size does NOT fit all. period

8:53AM PDT on May 7, 2012

Ok, let me say this, thank you to the mother who never gave up on her son Charlie. I remember when my mother shared with us after we were older; that she did not know our sister Michelle was autistic until she was three years old. She took her to the Doctor and told him that she's different from the rest of us, she doesn't talk, doesn't play with us, sits off to herself and Mama thought Michelle was just being Michelle until he told her, (your child is autistic), put her away, she will never grow to love you or know who you are and my mother said, "No, I will not give my child away, I will keep her and love her as long as she lives"! Though Michelle has come a long way, I can happily say, Michelle looks forward to going to church every Saturday, she loves Mama and the rest of us, she knows who we are, she can dress and do lots of things for herself & and helps around the house when asked for help. With the help of a speech therapist, she can talk much better than years ago in her younger days. She has a job working three times a week at the center for the handicap. I wish that Doctor that told my mother to put Michelle away can see her now, his eyes would drop out of his head. So, I admire any mother/father, who stands by their child born with disabilities. Michelle is now 53 years old and a beautiful woman with a loyal and humble soul.

8:46AM PDT on May 7, 2012

ok, let me say this, thank you to the mother who never gave up on her son Charlie. I remember when my mother shared with us, that she did not know our sister Michelle was autistic until she was three years old. She took her to the Doctor and told him that she's different from the rest of us, she doesn't talk, doesn't play with us, sits off to herself and Mama thought Michelle was just bein Michelle until he told her, (your child is autistic), put her away, she will never grow to love you or khow who you are and my mother said, "No, I will not give my child away, I will keep her and love her as long as she lives"! Though Michelle has come a long way, I can happily say, Michelle looks forward to going to church every Saturday, she loves Mama and the rest of us, she knows who we are, she can dress and do lot's of things for herself though and helps around the house when asked for help. With the help of a speech therapist, she can talk much better then years ago in her younger days. She has a job working three times a week at the center for the handicap. I wish that Doctor that told my mother to put Michelle away can see her now, his eyes would drop out of his head. So, I admire any mother/father, who stand by their child born with dissabilities. Michelle is now 53 years old and a beautiful women with a loyal and humble soul.

10:05AM PDT on May 4, 2012

I like the barber story a lot. Oftentimes, even with autistic kids you have to treat them like they have good sense, and have expectations that they will behave. They can be very manipulative, but a lot of it is because they are expected to misbehave. So you build in some supports for appropriate behavior. They really want to be treated in an age appropriate fashion and, with some support, will usually behave appropriately. Don't believe the "perpetual toddler" crap. A teenager, even if mentally retarded or autistic is still a teenager and likes teenage things, including looking nice, even if they have the judgment and learning ability of a young child. They have life experiences that a toddler does not have as well as hormones and a craving for acceptance that they cannot express verbally. What they need the most help with is decision making and judgment. I have been a special educator since 1975, mostly with severe, profound, and multiple disabilities and every one of my students always made some kind of progress socially, academically, or behaviorally. You just have to believe in them. CEC has had an awards program for years called YES I CAN. I think that sums it up.

3:50PM PDT on May 3, 2012

When my now 28 year old son was 3 he was nonverbal and we had no idea what his future would be. He is now married, with a typically developing 2 year old, has a good paying job, bought a house at 24, has close friendships and knows my neighbors better than I do. My 26 year old daughter on the spectrum is not quite as fortunate, but is doing well, and plans to move into her own apartment within the next few months. None of us really knows what the future will bring. But my kids are healthy and happy, and that's as much as I could hope for. I never dreamed that their lives would turn out as they have, back when they were little tykes.

10:02AM PDT on May 2, 2012

Amazing story. It just shows that with sheer love and determination more can be achieved than thought possible.
Our son with Asperger is now taking driving lessons something that was way beyond our expectations 23 years ago.

Kudos to you Kristina and to Charlie.

10:34AM PDT on May 1, 2012

Bravo to Charlie! But braves repeatedly to his parents, who, out of sheer love and determination, have listened to their son and helped him achieve all these milestones. It appears that the breakthrough that you made is that Charlie had a fully recognized sense of Self, and desires to communicate, from birth. Many, many parents. of both autistic and non-autistic children, never recognize that, and treat their children as objects to be manipulated, or as animal to be trained and curbed.

I'll bet that there are plenty of achievements that you haven't included: how to get dressed, habits of personal cleanliness, preparing his own lunch, even waiting his turn. I'll bet he has even surprise you by picking up new skills on his own, without even guidance from you! (And, no, moving his mattress into the hallway isn't one on the list.)

4:42AM PDT on May 1, 2012

A dedicated parent plays a huge role . Respect.

4:25AM PDT on May 1, 2012

I know from experience that one cannot afford to listen to negative 'professionals'. So often people say that they were told that they wouldn't do this or that and yet they do. People who have extra challenges in life, and their families, need all of the encouragement that they can get and can't afford to listen to any who would hinder their progress. All the best Charlie, you have come such a long way and should be proud.

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