September 2, 2004

    I'm looking for tips on how to teach a mentally disabled child to ride a bike (without training wheels).
    My daughter is 15 with autism. I tried the regular route (training wheels) years ago, but it just didn't work. For one she didn't have the strength to turn the pedals.
    Now after years in gymnastics classes, including trampoline and stationary bike work. we're trying again. I know she has the strength now because on the back on a tandem, she can pedal for both of us (my feet off the pedals) at least on level ground, for a couple of blocks. And I'm no lightweight. So I think we should be able to go all the way. But on the tandem, I think the balance work is mostly done by me, riding in the front. And balance is her weak point.
    So I put her on a regular bike, her size, with 18 gears. I hold the rear of the seat, with another hand on the handle bars. We've tried it on grass (in gears 1,3) and cement (gears 2,4), but I just don't feel that she's got enough balance for me to let go, even for a second. I think we need to avoid a fall at least for now, because that would probably turn her off to further attempts.
    Do you know of anyone with experience in this area?
    Loved your book on urban biking. Many thanks.

Scott B.

    First, I commend you for your hard work building up your daughter’s bicycling strength and confidence with gymnastics and a tandem bike.
    I and other bicycling instructors teach both kids and adults to bicycle using a method that disregards training wheels. We do it on a wide, flat, hard surface (such as a deserted parking lot or basketball court) and it usually takes two to three hours.
    To start, use a bicycle that has hand brakes and on which the student can place both feet flat on the ground without bending their knees too much (lower the seat if you must). Put the bike in a gear slightly higher than the easiest one (e.g., smallest chainring in front, larget cog in back). Remove the pedals from the bike.
    Have the student put on a helmet. Seat the student on the bicycle. Then, as you walk alongside, coach them on these steps:

  1. The student pushes the bike forward using their feet. Practice stopping by squeezing the brake levers.
  2. Practice pushing the bike around using their feet.
  3. As they move the bike forward at a steady pace, try a brief lifting of the feet.
  4. While the bike moves forward, try a longer lifting of the feet: when the bike starts to fall, try pointing the front wheel in the direction of the fall.
  5. Try an even longer lifting of the feet: if it looks like the bike moves too slowly for balance to occur, start from the top of an incline or the instructor should push from the back of the seat. Repeat until the student learns balance.
  6. Attach the pedals. How to start the bike using pedals: (1) Sit on bike, feet on ground; (2) position the first foot slightly out and lean the bike to that side; (3) move the pedal on the opposite side to 10:00; (4) put the second foot on 10:00 pedal; (5) push off; (6) pedal the second foot down to 7:00; (7) put the first foot on the pedal.
  7. Practice braking: (1) Stop pedaling; (2) brace arms; (3) squeeze brake levers gradually; (4) while stopping put one foot down and lean to that side.
  8. Do free-form riding to practice steering.
  9. Practice steering around obstacles.

    Geographically lucky folks can take a learn-to-ride class taught by certified instructors. Such classes take place in California, Massachusetts and Toronto (where I learned to teach it).

Mr Bike

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