Camp teaches kids with Down syndrome, autism to ride a bike

Inside the pavilion at Dripping Springs Ranch Park, bikes are lined up by size along one wall, just waiting for their riders.

They look like ordinary kids bikes, except these have a handlebar on the back of the seat and an extra rubber wheel on the back.

These two tweaks are how I Can Shine teaches kids with Down syndrome, autism and other physical and intellectual differences how to ride a bike.

Down Syndrome Association of Central Texas and the Autism Society brought I Can Shine I Can Bike Camp to Dripping Springs earlier this month to give their kids the chance to learn to ride a bike. While the camp costs $8,000 to bring to a community, plus hotel costs for two staff members, the association was able to raise money from its Buddy Walk to offset most of the cost for the 27 campers. Most of the campers were local, but one came from Oklahoma and one from the Houston area.

The campers, divided into groups of between four and eight campers, attend 75-minute sessions for five days. On the first day, many of the kids had only been able to ride a tricycle before or a bicycle with training wheels — never a two-wheel bike independently. By the end of the fifth day, 80 percent of the campers were expected to ride independently, says Andrea Patrick, manager of operations with I Can Shine. I Can Shine travels around the country putting on camps mainly for kids 8 and older who have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, cognitive delays, attention deficit disorder, and stroke or brain injury.

The handlebar on the back of the bike is for the volunteers to hold to steady the rider or to help the rider push off to start. The extra wheel, which looks a little like a rubber rolling pin, keeps the rider steady. As riders get more and more used to the feel of balancing on a bike, the rollers get smaller and smaller until eventually the kids are not using one at all.

“Why it works so smoothly is the bikes do the work of balancing,” Patrick says. Slowly the rider builds confidence in balancing.

“It’s a brilliant technique,” says Cathy McPhee, whose 14-year-old daughter, January, was at the camp. Before this camp, January was never able to ride anything beyond a tricycle. The camp removes a lot of the fear of learning to ride. “They learn how to ride without all the falls,” McPhee says.

That fear of falling holds a lot of kids with disabilities back. Amelia Mendoza says for her son Alejandro Martin, 13, that’s a big part of it. “A lot of it on his part is fear that he’s going to fall down and our fear that he’s going to get hurt,” she says.

With the roller at the back, though, he’s able to learn to balance. “I’m hoping he will take off like the other kids have been able to,” Mendoza says. “He’s been wanting to ride his bike.”

The campers start the week riding inside a pavilion, going around and around in a circle. At some point, they switch the direction of the circle to work on turning the bike the other way. Each camper has two volunteers who hold the handle of the bike. Once the campers are ready for the volunteers to let go, the volunteers run alongside the bike. Volunteers also remind campers to pedal, to steer, to look up. They provide motivation for campers to keep going.

During the week, campers also get to try riding a tandem bike with an I Can Shine staff member steering so they get the feel of balancing on a two-wheeler.

When I Can Shine staff determines campers are ready, they head outside to ride. There they have an even bigger space. They practice starting and stopping on their own. Sometimes they don’t even go in a circle but instead make figure 8s or go in a straight line or make a snakelike path on the pavement.

Midway through the week, campers bring in their own bikes so that I Can Shine techs can assess if riders will need their bike to have a handle at the back for parents to help them start and balance. Parents are given guidance on which kind of bike to buy: one that has hand brakes and that only uses the pedals to go forward, not to stop.

By four days into the camp, many of the kids are outside riding on their own or with a little bit of assistance. Pilar Rivera, 15, got a big surprise when a purple bike was wheeled out to the outdoor area — it was her bike! “My bike! Thank you, Mommy!” she said, giving her mother a big hug. She hopped on it and began riding with only a little help getting started the first time.

“You’re doing awesome!” her mother, Phyllis Mendoza, called out to her.

Pilar has plans. She wants to ride her bike all the way to her father’s work. Mendoza will be happy to be able to have Pilar ride without her help.

“Turning is the best part,” says January McPhee. “It’s my favorite part ever.” Her least favorite part is the pedaling — it’s just hard, she says. Her bike is seafoam green, and she plans to ride two miles to a park in her neighborhood. “I can ride with my mom,” she says.

“I’m proud of you,” Cathy McPhee says. “Now we can go bike riding together.”

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