Our 11-year-old daughter Isla doesn’t have much stamina. She has to work much harder than most to coordinate those easy movements we do subconsciously. My husband and I are keen walkers and ideally would love Isla to be able to join us. However, we are not able to cover any distance as she tires easily.
When Isla was a little younger and smaller, we were able to take her for a ride with a tow-along bike. This gave us all much needed freedom and our ride along the paths of Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island is one of my favourite holiday memories.
This year while on holiday in Wanaka for a second time, we realised that Isla was now too big for a tow-along bike. So, we decided our goal for this year would be for Isla to learn to ride a bike independently.
We had tried various things in the past. When younger she had trainer wheels and a handle on her bike. She didn’t have the motor skills to pedal and it wasn’t long before the handle broke off due to the pressure placed on it through pushing and steering. Then there was some success with a trike in the back garden and Isla being able to master turning the pedals. Over the years she also had the opportunity to practice this skill on 3-wheeler bikes at the Special School she attends.
There is a company here in New Zealand that makes custom bikes for kids with special needs. This was definitely a consideration for us but they are really expensive and also hard to transport from place to place.
We then discovered you could actually purchase larger trainer wheels online. We had a bike that used to belong to one of Isla’s sisters. We purchased and attached them and our mission ‘To Ride a Bike’ begun.
With Isla having poor spatial awareness, no fear of danger mixed with high anxiety and weak muscle tone, there were a few things to take into consideration when starting out.
We started on a nice, flat wide path in the park surrounded by grass. She took to it straight away and zoomed off which was great to see but also a little unnerving. She got so far ahead of us and I didn’t know if she would remember to apply the brake!
We have since figured out that I need to talk her through each step. I need to tell her when to apply her brakes, tell her not to stop when going around a curved hill and to tell her to move over when someone is approaching. All of these things have to be practiced over and over until she masters it. I see little children riding their bikes so naturally, just as my older girls did when they were young, and it just makes you realise how much harder she has to work in all areas of her life.
The only thing with bikes having larger trainer wheels are they are prone to tipping easily. With the wheels being wider than the bike at the back, it is easy to have one wheel off the path making it unstable. After a couple of close encounters one of the first things we did was to train Isla to put her feet down if the bike was tipping to help steady it.
With the Covid-19 social restrictions being put into place here in New Zealand, we are only allowed to leave our homes for exercise in our local area. This has become a great opportunity to get out on the bike every day. Getting Isla out the house to do any physical activity is difficult unless she is highly motivated. Luckily, she is always keen to go for a bike ride.
Having autism Isla enjoys speaking her mind and doesn’t care what people think of her. She has taken the 2-metre distancing rule very seriously. She rides along ringing her bell yelling 2 metres away!!!! Are you 2 metres away? Although this is often embarrassing, it is highly effective for getting people to move away from us!
We practice on the same route every day, so she learns how to control her bike with various gradients. She is definitely improving each time we head out. I am hoping she will get to the point where we can remove the trainer wheels and she will have total control over her bike and her body. Like everything in Isla’s world patience and repetition is key.