As the world continues to seek better ways to support children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there’s a growing need to use physical methods to facilitate their development. In a report released by the World Health Organization, at least one child out of 160 has autism.
ASD symptoms vary from child to child, but many kids with autism have a lack of physical balance to some extent and struggle with coordination or body awareness. These traits can be accompanied by challenges with social interaction, cognitive disabilities, and difficulty paying attention or concentrating on one particular activity for long periods.
When observed closely, some children with autism may swing their arms without coordination. Their leg movement may also show a lack of control as they swing in all directions.
To better cope with these challenges, these children are often engaged in occupational therapy. This type of therapy involves many activities that aim to improve the child’s ability to perform more tasks by himself/herself.
These activities include learning strategies, play skills, self-care, and creativity. In recent times, bicycle riding lessons have been incorporated to support children with autism and other physical and learning challenges. This method, however, is yet to be used on a large scale.
Benefits of cycling for children with autism
Pedaling a bicycle can be challenging for many children who do not have autism. When a child on the spectrum attempts to do the same, it might become a near-impossible task. Due to the balance and coordination challenges associated with autism, some children with this condition never learn bike riding.
In 2015, however, research revealed children with ASD could gain better physical balance when exposed to five weeks of consistent no-pedal balance bicycle training. The research was carried out on eight children with ASD. Their ages ranged from six to 10 without any prior experience of riding a bicycle.
Every week, they met for three days for one hour at most each day. On average, they cycled for roughly 15 minutes each time, and this depended on how long they could concentrate on the cycling exercise. During the experiment, the children were observed regularly to record changes in their physical behavior.
These behaviors include four-plane body balance (right, left, back, and front), static balance on open eyes, and balance with open eyes when standing on unlevel surfaces.
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Dr. Andrew Shim, Chairman of Kinesiology and Human Performance Development at Briar Cliff University, who conducted this research, released a statement on his findings.
He said: “Stability scores in all body planes were significantly improved during the five week duration.” He also stated the benefit of starting cycling with no-pedal bicycles, commenting: “[this approach] can assist children with special needs in transitioning to a regular, two-wheeled bicycle without the anxiety of falling or using training wheels.”
Aside from improving the child’s body balance, riding a bike without pedals can also help the child in other areas. An education instructor at Rapid City’s Central High School, Dakota, named Amy Houston, found that riding no-pedal bikes improved speech fluency as well as social and behavioral interaction in children with ASD.
Buddy bikes are also used for children with autism. Buddy bikes are constructed so there is a provision for an adult to sit behind the child. This reduces the need for technical skills for the child to efficiently ride a bicycle.
Cycling improves body movement coordination and sensory alertness, strengthens weak muscles, and enhances balance. It also increases the confidence level of these children.
Undoubtedly, cycling is a worthwhile activity to pursue for children on the autism spectrum.
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood