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How my son learned to just roll with it at bike camp

The post below is by Lisa Smith, the mother of seven children, two with special needs. Her son Tate has autism. Lisa blogs about her experiences and can be found on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos or at quirks-and-chaos.blogspot.com.

How many of your childhood memories revolve around a bicycle?

I learned to ride on a small red bike, my dad or an older brother running beside me and helping me until I learned to balance all by myself. I think I rode most of the tread off the tires of that bike.

Tate, like many people with autism, has trouble with motor skills. He cannot jump gracefully or run quickly. He walks with an awkward gait, often on his toes. He was able to ride a tricycle when he was a preschooler and we tried a few times to get him on a bicycle with no success.

Then last year our pediatrician asked me if Tate liked to ride a bike. I told her that he was unable and she asked me why. I was surprised that she was even asking. I believe my answer to her was, “Because he has autism.” That doctor sees kids with autism all the time so why was she questioning Tate’s inability to ride a bike? She urged me to enroll Tate in a bike camp. I’d never heard of such a thing.

As we left that appointment, I had to ask myself: Was I just rationalizing and making excuses or were there valid reasons Tate could not ride a bike? Although Tate does have to work much harder than his peers to master new skills, he sometimes surprises me. Just saying that it surprises me when Tate succeeds at difficult tasks makes me somewhat sad and embarrassed. Why should I NOT expect Tate to do well? Why am I such a cynic? I suppose if I do not expect great things to happen then I cannot be disappointed if great things do not ensue.

Amazingly enough, a bike camp fell into our laps in our very own small town almost immediately after that doctor visit. Two of the teachers from our school district were hosting an iCan Shine Bike Camp. I was so excited to hear the camp boasts of an eighty percent success rate. I do not think it would be exaggerating to say that learning to ride a bike could be life changing for a kid with a disability.

Although I was excited about bike camp, Tate was not. He made excuses, protested, and became anxious whenever we talked about riding a bike. So, hoping to win him over, I took Tate to purchase a bike.  Remarkably, it was love at first sight for Tate. He could not own it soon enough.

So, what does a child with autism do when he becomes the proud owner of a bike that he cannot yet ride? He sat by it for hours. He lovingly wiped it off with a rag once in a while. He took pictures of it. He talked about it to anyone who would listen. He even fantasized out loud about riding his bike to the mall.

Despite the love of the new bike, Tate still insisted he should not go to bike camp. He became almost desperate in his attempts to convince me bike camp was a bad idea right up until the last minute. Then it was time.

We loaded the bike into the van and wheeled it into the High School Gym where the volunteers and campers were gathered. And I crossed my fingers and hoped Tate would be a part of the eighty percent at the end of the week.

Much of the work at the iCan Shine Bike camp is done with volunteers. The sessions were seventy-five minutes and each camper received individual attention from two or three volunteers. That first day the campers were on bikes that had a large roller for a back wheel. There was almost no way a kid could tip a bike like that. The bike experts from I Can Shine adjusted the bikes to fit individual riders. The kids in Tate’s session became very confident and by the end of class were pedaling like champs. I was pleasantly surprised by Tate’s speed at the end of class. It was definitely fast enough to keep a bike balanced, but I was still skeptical that he would be able to balance without the security of the roller.

 Day two was called Tandem Tuesday. They used the roller bikes for a while at the beginning of the hour and then the campers all got turns on a two-seater bike with an I Can Shine staff member behind them.

 Day three was called Launch Day. They went outside to the school parking lot and used a bike with a long handle on the back. An adult could hold onto the handle to help the camper balance. The volunteers ran alongside the bikes, steadying the riders as needed for as long as it took. Here’s the amazing part: It didn’t take long until the campers were riding with no help. Tate was amazing. I was amazed. Tate was on two wheels, unassisted, making turns and looking like he’d been riding for years. This was only day three. Most of the other campers were also riding. Tate fell once and skinned his knee. No big deal. He was back up and riding in a few minutes. I cried happy tears. I was so proud. On the way home I asked Tate if he was glad I had insisted he go to bike camp even though he did not want to go. He said, “Yes.”

 Day four was more of the same. Tate rode and rode and rode. No skinned knees this day. He needed someone to steady the bike when he took off each time but once he was pedaling, he was the master.

On the last day of bike camp the kids were transitioned to their own bikes. They worked a lot on take offs and stops. And when we got home Tate went for his first bike ride with his siblings and his dad. That. Was. Priceless.

 When that doctor told me to find a bike camp for Tate, I was so skeptical.  There was really someone who could teach Tate to ride a bike? In one week? I had serious doubts. Sure, I found a camp, signed him up, paid the fee, talked it up to Tate, bought him a bike, forced him to go and participate. But did I really BELIEVE he would succeed? I think I mostly just faked it. I’ve done that a lot. I provide Tate with the opportunities to achieve great things often and cheer him on while negative thoughts dance around in my head. The people at iCan Shine taught Tate to ride a bike and taught me to stop doubting.

 You can find them at www.icanshine.org if you are interested. They have many bike camps going on across the United States throughout the summer. If there is not one nearby, ask them how to host a program in your town. There is a reason they have an eighty percent success rate. This program was fantastic.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.