Monday, June 9, 2014

On Two Wheels (Part One)

How many of your childhood memories revolve around a bicycle? I learned to ride on a small red bike, my dad or an older brother running beside me and helping me ‘til I learned to balance all by myself. I remember getting my first new bike with a banana seat for my ninth birthday. I think I rode most of the tread off the tires of that bike. I remember the thrill of getting permission to ride all the way around the block by myself when I was old enough, and then later riding to the store with a friend on occasion. There were bike wrecks and bloodied elbows and knees. There were flat tires. Did anyone else out there ever get their pant leg caught in their bike chain? Eventually I upgraded to a ten-speed, but that magenta-colored bike with the banana seat will always be the bike I remember most.

My older kids learned to ride around age five, give or take a year, usually on a hand-me-down bike. Then we would make a trip to the store to buy them a bike of their own. One of my younger kids had no interest in learning to ride. Each summer I tried to coax him onto a bike and each summer he said, “no.” Finally, about age ten, the first day of his summer vacation, I announced that there would be no video games played until he could ride a bike. He learned in a matter of minutes and rode a lot that summer. He continues to ride often. Our youngest, Sydney, learned to ride at a fairly young age, handicap and all. I found a bike at a yard sale that was like the one I loved so much as a kid, all the way down to the banana seat. She rides it a lot but recently has decided she needs to have one with hand brakes. I see a new bike in her near future.

Tate, like many people with autism, has trouble with motor skills. He cannot jump gracefully or run quickly. He walks with an awkward gait, often on his toes. He was able to ride a tricycle when he was a preschooler and we tried a few times to get him on a bicycle with no success. Recently, a developmental pediatrician we saw asked me if Tate liked to ride a bike. I told her that he was unable and she asked me why. I was surprised that she was even asking. She sees kids with autism all the time. I had to ask myself: Was I just rationalizing and making excuses or were there valid reasons Tate could not ride a bike? We had not tried to get Tate on a bicycle in years. Although Tate does have to work much harder than his neurotypical peers to master new skills, he sometimes surprises me. Just saying that it surprises me when Tate succeeds at difficult tasks makes me somewhat sad and embarrassed. Why should I NOT expect Tate to do well? Why am I such a cynic? I’ve never been that parent who expects great things from her children. I expect average things from my children and less than average things from my children with disabilities. Do not misunderstand me. I am extremely proud of my children. ALL of my children. And I believe my children ARE doing great things. But, I have always been somewhat of a pessimist, my whole life. I suppose if I do not expect great things in life then I cannot be disappointed if great things do not ensue. Then, when great things DO happen, I can be pleasantly surprised. What would it have been like had I lived the last 51 years expecting great things? Would my family be doing even greater things than they are now? I surely hope my pessimistic attitude has not held any of them back.

The day I told Tate’s doctor he could not ride a bike she urged me to find a “bike camp” and enroll him. I had never heard of bike camp. She gave me the name and number of a man to contact in Kansas City who would be able to tell me about it. I called and emailed a few times but never got him to return my calls. Then, amazingly enough, a bike camp fell into our laps in our very own small town. This bike camp is a fantastic opportunity for Tate. I do not believe I would be exaggerating to say, learning to ride a bike could be life-changing for a kid with a disability. The camp boasts of an eighty percent success rate. It is scheduled for this week. 

I have spent a couple of months trying to get Tate excited about learning to ride a bike. He has NOT jumped on board. He has told his peers things like, “My mom THINKS I am going to bike camp this summer but I am not.” He has tried to convince me he was too busy and he has made many excuses. I’ve heard, “I’m not into riding bikes” from him often. He has been very anxious. He has nervously paced and argued for the past two weeks about bike camp, bringing it up often. So, hoping to win him over, I took Tate to Walmart one day last week and showed him the bike I wanted to buy for him. The bike recommended by the bike “experts” is called a cruiser. It has coaster brakes, a wide seat, high handlebars, and wide pedals. Remarkably, it was love at first sight for Tate. He could not own it soon enough. We went back this past Friday morning and purchased the bike. I did not think Tate had the coordination it would take to even wheel the bike to the front of the store so I offered to do it, but he insisted. I had to show him more than once how to hold the handlebars and lean over the bike to steer it as he walked beside it. He probably looked pretty strange pushing that bike through the store. I had a flashback to a few of my six year olds pushing much smaller bikes through Walmart when we were buying their first bikes. This time I was there with my 12 year old who is 6’2” tall. It took a very long time but we made it to the register and out the door with that bike. He even helped me lift it into the van.

The cruiser
So, what does a child with autism do when he becomes the proud owner of a bike that he cannot yet ride? He sits by it for hours. He lovingly wipes it off with a rag once in a while. He takes pictures of it. He talks about it to anyone who will listen. He even fantasizes out loud about riding his bike to the mall. If you have been reading my blog posts long, you will remember Tate has had many unusual attachments to things over the years. There was a cloth diaper fetish when he was little. Then there were ribbons and cords. The vacuum was his major love interest for a long while. There was a stuffed duck he named Boris, a Woody doll, spiral notebooks, a red sweater, his i-pad, his watch, his hat, and his KU Jayhawk hoodie (which we recently had to seize due to the heat…but that is a whole ‘nother blog post.) Never has Tate become obsessed with something this large or something that he cannot keep in the house. 

Despite the love of the new bike, Tate is still insisting he should not go to bike camp tomorrow. He was almost desperate in his attempts to convince me today. We were with friends this evening and he was still attempting to persuade me to let him skip camp. Exasperated, and forgetting that I cannot reason with Tate (it's the autism) or EVER win an argument, I said something like, “Unless you can show me you can ride a bike this evening, you are going to bike camp tomorrow.” He brightened right up, ran over to my friend and told her that his mom had changed her mind and he did not have to go to bike camp. All he had to do was ride two inches on his own. Tate does not understand numbers and has no concept of measurement so I did not let that part worry me. My kid got on that bike tonight and practiced and practiced, determined to get out of bike camp. He persevered much longer than I imagined he would. No, he did not ever truly ride the bike, but with someone (2 or 3 people at times) helping him balance he did pedal it. He was also able to balance by himself with both feet off the ground for a couple of seconds at a time. Yes, he will still be going to bike camp tomorrow and he is still dreading it. The cynical me, the pessimistic me, has thought silently for weeks, “two out of eight kids won’t learn to ride the week of bike camp.” The mom that I wish I could be, the mom that I SHOULD be, will be with Tate every day this week telling him, “You can do it.” Both of us will be proud of him no matter what.

And if he DOES master two wheels? I should probably have a talk with him about that ride to the mall fantasy he is having. 

Read Part Two here:

I would be so appreciative if you'd tell me in the comments section below where you saw this post. It has been circulated more than any post I've written to date and I'd love to hear where some of you have found it.

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