My daughter can ride a bike.
I couldn’t have said that last week. This week I can.
I've tried for years to teach her to ride a two-wheeler, training wheels, low seats, push bikes and scooters. I don't know how many miles I've run along behind her holding the back of her seat.
None of it worked. But Lose The Training Wheels did.
After too many years, I realized my daughter probably isn't the first special needs kid to have trouble with a two-wheeler and I'm not the first dad to bang his head against this wall.
Sometimes, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
So I went on the 'tubes and with a little help from a very nice woman at the Society for Handicapped Children & Adults in Modesto, CA, I found Lose The Training Wheels.
They say they can get most kids riding a two wheeler, without assistance, in one week. That's a pretty incredible claim, incredible enough to make me a little skeptical. But I found the nearest camp and signed her up.
The camp was 5 sessions of 75 minute each. It started in a high school's cafeteria and kids moved outside to the parking lot as they progressed. Lose The Training Wheels supplied the bikes (including the freakin' magic bikes that are key to their program, along with the camp counselors.
There were about 10 kids in our session and the camp had 5 sessions running sequentially through the day. The kids ranged from fairly high functioning autistic and Asperger's kids to some pretty severe Down Syndrome kids.
From the very first day, the kids were on two wheel bikes, sans training wheels. The trick is the roller bike shown above. Instead of a rear wheel, it has a wide roller shaped like a French rolling pin, slightly tapered from the center out to the ends. The roller keeps the bike stable and prevents falls, but also has enough "wobble" that the child has to work to keep the bike steady.
I think that was where training wheels always failed. They were too stable. My daughter never learned to balance the bike with them. So when I tried to take them off, she panicked.
The rollers, OTOH, were amazing. Every kid in the camp could ride with them as soon as they sat on the bike. After that it was just a matter of practice. Volunteers helped the kids ride circles in the cafeteria, practicing balancing the bike, steering and leaning into turns. After 30 minutes or so of NASCAR riding (left turns only), they reversed directions and everyone went clockwise to practice right turns.
The rollers for the bike come in 8 different cambers, increasing in difficulty from "rolling pin" to one which is almost as difficult to balance as a real two wheeler. As each child got used to the roller he/she was on, the camp coordinator would swap it out for a harder one.
Most of the kids didn't even notice the change. They just kept riding.
By the third day, some of the kids were ready for two wheels. The camp coordinator used a special tandem bike to tell when a kid was ready. I don't have a photo of it, but think of two Schwinns welded together end-to-end with active breaks and steering for the rear rider. Sort of a Driver's Ed car for bikes.
The coordinator would take the kid for a couple of laps to get the feel for the tandem, then let the kid take over. If the kid could steer, balance and lean into the turns properly, it was outside for the first experience with a two wheeler.
By the end of the week, every kid in our session was riding. Some were completely independent, tearing around the parking lot so fast the volunteers could only stand in the center of the track and watch. Others still needed a little help from a "Bike Buddy", a handle that mounts to the seat post or rear triangle and lets the volunteer provide a little help starting, stopping and keeping upright.
I'm on a bike.
Being able to ride a regular bike is a huge step with many great advantages for a handicapped kid. Independence, inclusion in activities with normal kids (neurotypicals, in autism speak), training for eventually driving a car and getting around on their own. It's huge.
I hope there are other benefits as well. There's some evidence that the same neural pathways used for motor planning are used or are at least very closely related to those responsible for higher executive functions, like planning your homework, cleaning your room and other multi-step tasks that challenge my daughter.
The hope is that by exercising these pathways on the bike, her growing brain will rewire itself to better handle everything life throw at her.
So we're practicing in her school parking lot and I bite my tongue when she takes a corner too tight or rides too close to the curb. I stand still as she wobbles on the starts and uses the "Flintstone's stop".
She's going to fall and it's going to hurt. But she already knows "When you get bucked off, get back on." That will take her further than I can.