Cycling as therapy for autism

#1
“Papa, which hill shall we ride today?”

This is the first question I am asked every morning. Fynn is ten now, he has autism, and his favorite thing to do is ride up and down hills. Any hill, every hill. He loves hills.

“I don’t know, which hill do you want to ride?”

“How about Bingham Hill?”

“Sounds like a plan” I say.

I was hoping he’d say that. Bingham Hill is both of our favorites. It’s nearly a two mile climb on it’s east side, with a good little drop in the middle to give you a break and help you gain momentum right when you need it most.

We stop here and take a drink of water, take in our surroundings. Bingham Hill crosses over Reservoir Ridge, passing through farmland and fields littered with giant red sandstone boulders and rabbitbrush. It’s a beautiful place.

We get back on our bikes and start up the last leg, the steepest part of the hill. At one point you're climbing up a 21 degree slope. Two road bikers pass us coming down the hill, flying 30 miles an hour with smiles glued to their faces. One of them gives Fynn a thumbs up. This gives me more joy than I can articulate. Most of the time when I take Fynn out in public he doesn’t get a thumbs up. He gets stared at, he gets whispered about, he gets told to watch where he’s going. He surprises people, he catches people off guard. He bothers people. Most people don’t know how to act around kids with autism, especially older kids. But when he’s riding he’s not autistic, he’s just a kid on a bike.

Bingham Hill is a popular destination for cyclists wanting to push themselves, or test their limits. When they see this kid climbing one of the longest, toughest hills in town, on an entry level (read, heavy) 24” wheeled bike, smiling and pedaling for all he’s worth, it almost unanimously makes people light up. It encourages them, it gives them hope.

We make it to the top of the hill and stop for a rest. There’s a little park up there and we sit for a minute and take in the view. The valley to the west is filled with galloping horses. There’s a stream meandering through it. Clouds are building up over the mountains. To the east, the city of Ft. Collins sits on the plains, going about it’s business. We’re tired and happy. We see a couple of cyclists coming up the west side of the hill, the steepest part. “You can do it!” Fynn yells.

As is typical for many kids with autism, Fynn has more energy than he knows what to do with. When he doesn’t have an outlet for it, it consumes him. He bounces off the walls, he bumps into things, he bumps into people. He runs around, he gets loud and repetitive. He finds a phrase and says it over and over again in a voice that sounds like nails scraping on a chalkboard. Cycling is a relief valve for him. It gives his energy a healthy outlet. It allows us to do things that other people take for granted, like have a conversation. We ride to beautiful places, we get exercise, we make memories. We enjoy life.

“Well, ready to go down?” Fynn says.

“Let’s do it.”

We get back on our bikes, check for cars, and start the descent down the west side. This is the steepest part, and after the first curve we’re flying 30 mph, yelling Woohoo! It’s a little scary seeing your kid going so fast on a bike, I’ll admit. But it feels like absolute freedom.

“It feels like your on a roller coaster” Fynn says, after we stop at the bottom, “It feels like you’re flying.” His eyes are glowing, his smile’s a mile wide. He is, at this moment, pure joy.

When we first got into the autism world we were met with a lot of negativity. A lot of “can’ts.” A lot of “you will never again...” A lot of “your kid will never...” A lot of advice. A lot of ways to fix the brokenness that is your child. It was frustrating, intimidating, and overwhelming.

When I talk to people about autism the question that always comes up is “What kind of therapy do you do?” My answer to that question is we ride bikes. It’s simple, it’s effective, it doesn’t cost hardly any money, I don’t need insurance to cover it, and it’s what Fynn wants to be doing anyway. And it’s what I want to be doing. I love riding my bike with my son. It’s not just therapy for him, it’s therapy for me. So much of Fynn’s growth, of the hurdle’s he’s overcome, the ways he’s grown and the things he’s learned, is a direct result of riding a bike.

Seeing him in moments like this, at the bottom of a hill, chugging water, his face aglow, I think back on those early days, when our world was “autism” and all the things we can’t do, and I feel a bit triumphant. We did it. We overcame the world of autism. Yes, Fynn is still autistic. Yes, he still has challenges, and meltdowns, and frustrations. But he’s living his dream. How many of us can truly say that?

We get back on our bikes and start up the hill for our return trip. It’s super steep, so we don’t talk. We reach the crest and keep going, gaining speed as we zip down the east side. We stop pedaling and let gravity take over. We pass one of those signs that tells you how fast you’re going. It reads 27 mph.

We ride into town and stop at the tea shop for a cookie and a cup of tea. We sit at a table and talk about our ride, talk about the weather, talk about whatever. This simple act of sitting at a table in public with my son is something that was impossible before we started riding together. If you have a kid with autism you know what I’m talking about. I don’t take this moment for granted.

Back at home he gets on youtube and watches a video about people riding E bikes up some of the steepest streets in the world. “Hey Papa,” he says, “we gotta get some E bikes, then we can ride up any hill we want to.”

“Ok” I say, “let’s do it.”
 

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ebikemom

Administrator
Staff member
#2
I love your beautifully written story, and can relate to your feelings and experiences. Autism is not a tragedy, but is a set of neurological characteristic of certain PEOPLE who live in our world.

YES, ebikes!!!! I have a 17 year old with HFASD whose life has been transformed by ebiking. He's different from your son in that he's a lower muscle tone kid, so has never been physically active or venturesome. While he LOVED his bike as a younger kid, we live in a very hilly area and the hills, which range from being steep (15-20%+) to being long (2 miles uphill from town to my house, probably 10% average grade) grades, so as he got older and going more places on bikes became a more natural idea, we couldn't progress to more functional "let's go places" cycling. And, moving into his teens, biking around the flat areas around our house became less and less interesting.

LOVE the ebikes. It's great that your son is interested. :) Happy shopping! If your son gets upset with change or when something doesn't work, you might find it helpful to get a bike from a local bike shop that has great warranty support and might provide loaners if something needs fixing. :)



Happy shopping!!!
 
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#3
Hey ebikemom! Thanks for the nice reply. Sounds like ya'll live in a nice place, and you've found your own way. It's definitely true that works for one person might not work for another- that's one of the things i don't like about standardized therapy- Our two kids are different and yet they both found their joys on bicycles- I'm actually glad we don't have ebikes yet, because Fynn needs that outlet that working hard gives him- I know we'll get them at the right time. And don't worry about not progressing to more functional "lets go places cycling." That's still a rarity for us, but so precious when it happens. Mostly we like to ride long open roads and trails, and we're getting into more off roading too, which is fun.

I work as a mechanic at a shop that sells ebikes, so i've got the support there, and i often find myself fixing things on the fly. But yes, sometimes change is hard. One time Fynn crashed and bent his chainring. He Screamed like it was the end of the world, and had to pedal home on his smallest front ring. He didn't like that at all, and then was so upset he could barely function, even though i told him i could either straighten it or replace the next day. I straightened it and it was better than it was before. He calmed down, and hopefully these little things add up to him not melting down everytime something happens. We've had flats and pedals falling off and all kinds of stuff happening while out riding, especially the more aggressive off road riding. So he's learning that it's just a part of cycling. And that's a big step, and it translates into his being able to accept other things that don't go as planned. It's one step at a time but progress is progress.
 

ebikemom

Administrator
Staff member
#5
With our ebikes, we (with our son) do do a lot of cycling as part of daily life--runs to the grocery store, pet store, Target, dinner out, frozen yogurt, to play Pokemon Go, get stuff at Home Depot, visit grandparents, go back to mom's office to get her forgotten item, etc, as well as recreational rides over hill and dale. He doesn't do any of this alone, but he is gradually getting more independent. For example, if I get involved in chatting with someone, he'll ride home by himself, which is awesome! He also leads the way with a person who is less familiar with a route or where they plan to go (riding ebikes with a tutor, for example).

It's great that conventional cycling is such good exercise for your son, and gives him that sense of accomplishment. Over time, adding ebiking might give him more functional transportation that won't require a shower, to go to meetings, a job, a medical appointment, etc., with conventional cycling still a part of the recreational picture.

My son is unlikely to drive, so his ebike will combine with other non-drivng transportation options.

Onward and upward! :) Lots of hills and valleys ahead to explore!
 

PDoz

Well-Known Member
#6
Wonderfully written, thanks.

My (10 yo) son still rides a conventional bike and gets many of the benefits you describe ( as well as the challenges) , he recently had a ride on my old giant trance - the joy he got from pumping the bike along the trail was magical.
 

MisterM

Active Member
#7
“Papa, which hill shall we ride today?”

This is the first question I am asked every morning. Fynn is ten now, he has autism, and his favorite thing to do is ride up and down hills. Any hill, every hill. He loves hills.

“I don’t know, which hill do you want to ride?”

“How about Bingham Hill?”

“Sounds like a plan” I say.

I was hoping he’d say that. Bingham Hill is both of our favorites. It’s nearly a two mile climb on it’s east side, with a good little drop in the middle to give you a break and help you gain momentum right when you need it most.

We stop here and take a drink of water, take in our surroundings. Bingham Hill crosses over Reservoir Ridge, passing through farmland and fields littered with giant red sandstone boulders and rabbitbrush. It’s a beautiful place.

We get back on our bikes and start up the last leg, the steepest part of the hill. At one point you're climbing up a 21 degree slope. Two road bikers pass us coming down the hill, flying 30 miles an hour with smiles glued to their faces. One of them gives Fynn a thumbs up. This gives me more joy than I can articulate. Most of the time when I take Fynn out in public he doesn’t get a thumbs up. He gets stared at, he gets whispered about, he gets told to watch where he’s going. He surprises people, he catches people off guard. He bothers people. Most people don’t know how to act around kids with autism, especially older kids. But when he’s riding he’s not autistic, he’s just a kid on a bike.

Bingham Hill is a popular destination for cyclists wanting to push themselves, or test their limits. When they see this kid climbing one of the longest, toughest hills in town, on an entry level (read, heavy) 24” wheeled bike, smiling and pedaling for all he’s worth, it almost unanimously makes people light up. It encourages them, it gives them hope.

We make it to the top of the hill and stop for a rest. There’s a little park up there and we sit for a minute and take in the view. The valley to the west is filled with galloping horses. There’s a stream meandering through it. Clouds are building up over the mountains. To the east, the city of Ft. Collins sits on the plains, going about it’s business. We’re tired and happy. We see a couple of cyclists coming up the west side of the hill, the steepest part. “You can do it!” Fynn yells.

As is typical for many kids with autism, Fynn has more energy than he knows what to do with. When he doesn’t have an outlet for it, it consumes him. He bounces off the walls, he bumps into things, he bumps into people. He runs around, he gets loud and repetitive. He finds a phrase and says it over and over again in a voice that sounds like nails scraping on a chalkboard. Cycling is a relief valve for him. It gives his energy a healthy outlet. It allows us to do things that other people take for granted, like have a conversation. We ride to beautiful places, we get exercise, we make memories. We enjoy life.

“Well, ready to go down?” Fynn says.

“Let’s do it.”

We get back on our bikes, check for cars, and start the descent down the west side. This is the steepest part, and after the first curve we’re flying 30 mph, yelling Woohoo! It’s a little scary seeing your kid going so fast on a bike, I’ll admit. But it feels like absolute freedom.

“It feels like your on a roller coaster” Fynn says, after we stop at the bottom, “It feels like you’re flying.” His eyes are glowing, his smile’s a mile wide. He is, at this moment, pure joy.

When we first got into the autism world we were met with a lot of negativity. A lot of “can’ts.” A lot of “you will never again...” A lot of “your kid will never...” A lot of advice. A lot of ways to fix the brokenness that is your child. It was frustrating, intimidating, and overwhelming.

When I talk to people about autism the question that always comes up is “What kind of therapy do you do?” My answer to that question is we ride bikes. It’s simple, it’s effective, it doesn’t cost hardly any money, I don’t need insurance to cover it, and it’s what Fynn wants to be doing anyway. And it’s what I want to be doing. I love riding my bike with my son. It’s not just therapy for him, it’s therapy for me. So much of Fynn’s growth, of the hurdle’s he’s overcome, the ways he’s grown and the things he’s learned, is a direct result of riding a bike.

Seeing him in moments like this, at the bottom of a hill, chugging water, his face aglow, I think back on those early days, when our world was “autism” and all the things we can’t do, and I feel a bit triumphant. We did it. We overcame the world of autism. Yes, Fynn is still autistic. Yes, he still has challenges, and meltdowns, and frustrations. But he’s living his dream. How many of us can truly say that?

We get back on our bikes and start up the hill for our return trip. It’s super steep, so we don’t talk. We reach the crest and keep going, gaining speed as we zip down the east side. We stop pedaling and let gravity take over. We pass one of those signs that tells you how fast you’re going. It reads 27 mph.

We ride into town and stop at the tea shop for a cookie and a cup of tea. We sit at a table and talk about our ride, talk about the weather, talk about whatever. This simple act of sitting at a table in public with my son is something that was impossible before we started riding together. If you have a kid with autism you know what I’m talking about. I don’t take this moment for granted.

Back at home he gets on youtube and watches a video about people riding E bikes up some of the steepest streets in the world. “Hey Papa,” he says, “we gotta get some E bikes, then we can ride up any hill we want to.”

“Ok” I say, “let’s do it.”
Fantastic, heart warming, well-written story. Deserves a national audience.
 
#8
With our ebikes, we (with our son) do do a lot of cycling as part of daily life--runs to the grocery store, pet store, Target, dinner out, frozen yogurt, to play Pokemon Go, get stuff at Home Depot, visit grandparents, go back to mom's office to get her forgotten item, etc, as well as recreational rides over hill and dale. He doesn't do any of this alone, but he is gradually getting more independent. For example, if I get involved in chatting with someone, he'll ride home by himself, which is awesome! He also leads the way with a person who is less familiar with a route or where they plan to go (riding ebikes with a tutor, for example).

It's great that conventional cycling is such good exercise for your son, and gives him that sense of accomplishment. Over time, adding ebiking might give him more functional transportation that won't require a shower, to go to meetings, a job, a medical appointment, etc., with conventional cycling still a part of the recreational picture.

My son is unlikely to drive, so his ebike will combine with other non-drivng transportation options.

Onward and upward! :) Lots of hills and valleys ahead to explore!
Yeah, i'm not sure if driving is in our future, but i know ebikes are- sounds like you've got a good thing figured out, thanks for sharing, it gives me lots of encouragement to keep going on this path we're on.
 

ebikemom

Administrator
Staff member
#9
It is a good thing. :) My son has a brighter picture his own future, for sure. He's also in better physical shape from being more active with all of the cycling we are doing. Ebiking is not strenuous exercise unless the rider wants it to be, but it is continuous pedaling and moderate physical activity.

You don't mention other family members, but you may have family members who can't keep up with the athleticism of your and your son's conventional cycling, but would be able to keep up on an ebike. There are lots of folks here for whom the ebike was first purchased as a way for one family member to keep up with another who is an avid conventional cyclist.

Happy cycling! :)
 
#13
Wonderful story, as a father myself, you guys put a smile on my face.
I will buy a bicycle for my daughter as soon as she is old enough too. I want her to have healthy habits like cycling.
Best of luck to you and your son.