How to Teach an Autistic Child to Ride a Bike
It can be easy to forget that children with autism can have physical concerns in addition to behavioral challenges. Balance, coordination, and motor skills can sometimes be delayed or difficult for some children on the spectrum, so physical tasks like riding a bike might take some time to learn.
In this article, we explore how to teach a child with autism to ride a bike using strategies that align with physical needs.
What challenges do children with autism face when learning to ride a bike?
There are many bodies of research that link poor motor skills and autism. One study established that children on the spectrum can have poor balance and coordination because of a neurological glitch. It also suggests that extreme fear and anxiety can add to the difficulty of a child with autism learning to ride a bike.
Some reasons for a child’s struggle with bike-riding include:
- Poor motor and balancing skills
- Difficulty planning movements and predicting the outcome
- Difficulty steering and pedaling
- Difficulty stopping the bicycle
- Difficulty understanding instructions
- Inability to sense danger
- Low muscle tone
- Anxiety or fear
Considering these factors, we can expect that children with autism may not have preliminary skills for bike riding.
Can an autistic child ride a bike?
While it is challenging, it is not impossible for children on the spectrum to ride a bike with continuous practice. There are stories of adults and children with autism who have successfully become bike riders.
There is no single way to teach an autistic child to ride a bike. Strategies can differ from one child to another, so it’s important to adjust accordingly and be creative in your approach.
Based on our research and collective reports from parents and adults with autism, we have compiled a list of tips for successfully teaching your child with autism how to ride his/her bike.
Choose the right bike for your child
Choosing the right bike for autism is easier than ever today. There are a variety of bikes that can help make bike-riding easier for your child.
The key is to gauge what your child’s challenges are and whether he/she needs a specific type of bike. Special bikes or adaptive bikes have proven to be effective in facilitating kids with challenges to learn how to cycle.
Let’s take a look at the many choices of bike types for kids on the spectrum.
A regular bike is fine for your child, but experts don’t recommend using training wheels. Training wheels do not help the rider learn balance and coordination–the two important skills needed for bike-riding.
With regular bikes, your child needs to manage to pedal and balance at the same time, so the challenge might be greater. Some teaching techniques include labeling each pedal with a different color and ask the child to “step on yellow” then “step on green” alternately.
Bikes for kids with autism can include a balance bike, which is a bike without pedals. Popular balance bike brands include Strider Bikes, BMX, REI, and Woom Bikes. These bikes are meant to be pushed forward with the rider’s legs instead of pedaling.
The strategy of a balance bike is simple: teach balance first without the distraction of pedaling. Balance skills are crucial for bike riding, and this bike is great for learning this skill.
A balance bike for autism is great for kids who have difficulty performing two physical actions simultaneously. By focusing on balance, the child can learn the more crucial part of bike riding.
A tandem bike is a two-seater bike that allows a child and an adult to ride together. The parent does the pedaling and steering, although the child can pedal and hold the handlebar too. Popular tandem bike brands include Buddy Bikes, KHS, Electra, and Sun Bicycles.
A tandem bike for autism can work well because it can be less stressful for the child (and parent) while learning pedaling and steering. To reinforce this method, the child needs to transition to his/her own bicycle to add the crucial skill of coordinating pedaling, steering and balancing.
If your child is too young for a bicycle, you can teach scootering first. Scooters are simpler to use, and they are great for teaching kids the concept of being on a “vehicle.”
Scooters are even better for toddlers because they are safer to use and much lighter to maneuver as compared to a proper bike. Explore brands like Razor, Micro Mini, and Yvolution to find the best scooter for your autistic child.
Tricycles have three wheels and can be used to transition from scooters. While a tricycle will not teach your child how to balance with two wheels, it can get him/her ready for pedaling and steering.
If you feel that your child needs more security and confidence when riding a bike, you can use a tricycle first before introducing him/her to a bike.
For people with severe physical disabilities, a tricycle is the next best thing to riding a bike. There are many brands that sell adaptive tricycles and regular tricycles.
Use safety gear for bike-riding
For a milestone as big as this, you want to conduct excellent preparation for bike-riding. This includes making sure that your child is safe no matter what happens. Safety is important when teaching your child to ride a bike.
Your child would need the following protective gear for cycling:
- Elbow pads
- Knee pads
- Wrist pads
Allow your child to choose his/her own gear so the child looks forward to learning how to ride a bike. In addition to choosing your child’s preferred colors and designs, check that every piece of gear is the right size and is comfortable.
Take it one step at a time
Children with autism can be easily overwhelmed, so you need to be more careful in giving too many instructions while your child is learning. Wait until your child understands your instructions and give guidance as needed.
Have a clear step-by-step plan on what you want your child to do. It might not always work perfectly, but at least you are able to instill a sequence of actions that your child might be able to remember, as most children with autism often do well.
Bike Preliminaries: Sitting and Mounting
The first step to riding a bike is getting on. If you have your own bike, you can show your child how to mount the bike, and he/she can simply copy you.
If you don’t have your own bike, and you are walking beside your child, give clear instructions on how to mount the bike, such as, “Swing your left leg over the seat.”
Wait until your child accomplishes the first instruction correctly before giving the next one, which can be, “Bend your knee slightly and sit on the seat.” Let the child repeat this process several times until he/she is confident and ready for the next step.
Holding the handlebar
The next step after mounting would be holding the handlebar. You can use colored stickers to place on the handlebar so you can then instruct your child to “put your hand on red,” and he/she would know what it means. Show your child how to steer left and right and allow him/her to practice steering in place.
Pedaling and braking
Balance and coordination may not be easy for children on the spectrum, but with practice, they can improve their physical abilities.
Pedaling might be especially hard for some children as they lack coordination skills. To make it less confusing, you can label each pedal with different colors so you can give out instructions like, “push yellow,” and then “push green.”
It’s also important to teach your child how to stop the bike. Demonstrate how to squeeze the brakes of the bicycle and clearly state the purpose of the brakes.
More autism bike riding help
If you need more guidance, there are autism groups and organizations that give bike riding lessons for special needs kids.
In a blog post, Angie Kauffman tells the story of how her son with autism Noah learned how to ride a bike at Bike Camp, a bike-riding camp organized by iCan Shine. The organization has been giving five-day bike camps for children with special needs and has seen high success rates of 80 percent.
You can also check with your child’s therapist to see if it’s possible to incorporate bike-riding during sessions.
Teaching children with autism a love of cycling can be a long but rewarding process. Despite the difficulties, we should always strive for our kids to experience milestones despite their challenges. With all the resources and support available today, there is no reason why we shouldn’t encourage kids with autism to learn how to ride a bike.
Balance Performance in Autism: A Brief Overview. 5 June 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29922206
How to Teach Your Special Needs Child to Ride a Bike. 20 October 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/joanne-giacomini/special-needs-bike_b_8312246.html
Bicycle Training for Youth With Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders. February 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254092489_Bicycle_Training_for_Youth_With_Down_Syndrome_and_Autism_Spectrum_Disorders
How Our Autistic Son Finally Learned To Ride A Bike. 26 Sep 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.reallifeathome.com/how-our-autistic-son-finally-learned-to-ride-a-bike/