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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