Autism and Riding a Bike

I get a surprising number of inquiries about this. Ever since I posted a photo of my son riding our adaptive bike, people ask me what it is and where we got it.

First, let’s start by saying, just because a child has autism, does not mean that they cannot ride a bike or need an adaptive bike. But, we do know that many autistic children have low muscle tone and different interoception which may affect bike riding.

my autistic son riding our adaptive bicycle

Our bike was on loan to us from his school during the pandemic. I have a love/hate relationship with it. I mean, we can ride it and it’s perfect for him. However, the thing is a beast and it weighs a ton. My son is also 15 and over 100 lbs.

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By the time you add up him, the bike, and even the slightest incline….whew! What a workout!

But, it works for us because he lacks the motor planning to pedal a bike. I feel more comfortable with him in front of me instead of behind me.

But, the size of this bike and the fact that it doesn’t fold up or collapse, pretty much means we can only use it at home. Taking it to a park or down to the beach to ride on the boardwalk would be out of the question.

If you’re looking for a bike for your disabled child, here are some ideas that many parents have found success with.

Balance Bikes for Disabled Kids

Many parents swear by balance bikes. We bought one for K and he was not successful.

Balance bikes do not have pedals. Instead, the child uses their own feet to propel themselves. They are designed for beginners who are not ready to put their feet on pedals and go.

The reason that they do not have pedals or training wheels is that they are designed to teach a child to learn to balance. Having training wheels is actually counterproductive to teaching a child how to balance on a bike.

The downside of a balance bike is that a child will unlikely be able to go as fast as their peers on pedal bikes. That may put them at a disadvantage for social bike rides. And, balance bikes that are bigger or for older kids are hard to find.

That’s just the usual thinking–that a child will progress and outgrow the balance bike. But, as we know, sometimes our kids take longer to learn things. You may have trouble finding a larger/taller balance bike for an older child.

What you can find online usually only goes up to age 7 or 9 at the most, which is unfortunate.

Adaptive Recumbent Bikes

Another really popular option for disabled kids is a recumbent style bike. They have 3 wheels, so no balancing skills required. And, they are much lower to the ground to make it less scary.

However, that can mean it may be harder to be seen by cars, so reflective stuff is a must!

Tricycles for Big Kids

Another great option is an adult tricycle. These are super popular in beach towns, and their popularity is growing outside of vacation spots too. I mean, they are so practical!

We’ve rented them at the beach and they are fun and more relaxing than a traditional bike. But, most of them are big, heavy and do not really collapse for easy transport.

You can get them built for more than one person. Still, the weight limit is pretty limiting. But, this one folds up so that’s good.

Choosing the Right Adaptive Bike

There are many factors that go into choosing the right bike for your disabled child.

  • Age and Size (Weight)
  • Ability and Projected Ability-I say this because my son has seizures, so him riding alone on a bike will not be a safe activity for him any time soon
  • Ability and Strength-Even if your child can balance or pedal a bike, how heavy is the bike? What’s the landscape like where you plan to do most of your riding?
  • Desired level of independence
  • Cost (keep in mind that you can buy and sell these secondhand to save money and recoup money on a bike outgrown)

Call around to “real” bike shops in your area. By that, I mean not a chain or big box store. Many of the independent bike stores may have a floor model for you to try out.

You’re more likely to get better customer service, assistance and personalization from a small, private bike store too. They can often do special orders and know their products well.

Will insurance pay for an adaptive bike?

I don’t think so. You can try. But you’re going to have to demonstrate that it’s a necessity for health reasons. Not impossible, but difficult for sure. Talk with your child’s pediatrician and perhaps their Physical Therapist to see if they have had success doing this.

Another option is to start asking around about grants and funding from community groups. Many times civic groups will fund something like this. Or, try Make-A-Wish to see if you qualify. I know many families who have gotten treehouses and trampolines and outdoor playsets from Make a Wish.

Good luck and happy riding!

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