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Children With Autism Take the Handlebars
At a Bicycling Night to Remember

Written by Toni Salama

Coming Together for a Cause

Riding a bicycle. For American kids, learning to pedal, balance and steer is simply taken for granted. But for some children with autism, this rite of passage can be far from simple.

That's changing, though. Thanks to a coordinated, cross-campus effort, 15 children with autism and their families had a helping hand--on the pavement and in the classroom--at Learn to Ride Your Bike Night. The College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Health, Exercise & Sport Sciences (HESS) and The School of Allied Health Sciences' South Plains Autism Network (SPAN) and Department of Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences (SLHS) all worked together to make the two-hour workshop a success.

The evening proved to be a learning experience all the way 'round.

Callie Kociuba was one of 12 undergraduates in Instructor Jeff Key's ESS 3335 course, Physical Education and Health for Children, who participated in the Sept. 25 event. She came expecting to learn techniques for helping children with autism hone their motor skills. But she left with much more than that.

"I didn't just learn about their motor skills and how to
help them develop," Kociuba said, "I also learned how to
communicate and learn their specific needs. I absolutely
loved the experience and knowledge I gained from it."

Kociuba took the event as an opportunity to continue working with individuals with autism, something she first experienced at Camp Summit, a Dallas-area outdoor camping program for children and adults with disabilities.

For HESS Graduate Teaching Assistant Maria Esperanza Bregendahl, the Bike Rodeo was her first opportunity to work directly with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their challenges with motor skills.

"We planned a bike course that we set up before the event started," Bregendahl explained, describing how students from both HESS and SLHS put their energies into sectioning the HESS parking lot into areas where the children could progress from basic balancing up to a more advanced course of zigzags with traffic cones.

"The collaborative effort of the HESS Department and
Health Science Center surely reached a positive outcome
because several kids learned to bike that day," Bregendahl said.
"You would think it's not possible after teaching them for
only a couple of hours, but it happened!"

Key said 25 of Texas Tech's HESS and SLHS students set up the course and helped coach the children through it. But first, they altered the bicycles in surprising way. "I directed other TTU students in taking the pedals and training wheels off the bikes," Key said. That step would help the children learn how to balance first. Then, with that skill mastered, the pedals were re-attached.

The Other Half of the Story

While the children were learning to ride outdoors, HESS Associate Professor Nida Roncesvalles was indoors speaking with parents, caregivers and volunteers. Roncesvalles and her students have participated in past SPAN activities, and she is active in bicycle safety for people of all ages and abilities through the non-profit Bike Texas organization (formerly Texas Bicycle Coalition). She explained how removing the bike pedals allowed the children to propel their bikes by pushing their feet against the ground. Then, during the "glide," they held their feet up and learned to adjust their legs and upper body to maintain balance.

"Constraining the task or the behavior is one way of simplifying the 'game' for children with special needs," Roncesvalles said. "For this particular day, the idea was to concentrate on one aspect--balance--without having to worry about the propulsion, the pedaling, too much. By doing so, the children worked on the skill in a whole different way."

She found the Bike Rodeo a source of contemplation about teaching methods. "Learning doesn’t always occur in one predetermined way," Roncesvalles said. "The challenge is for teachers to find those that work at that moment and for that particular child."

By way of example, she pointed to the relationship between bike riding and assumptions about speed. When adults allow children always to go fast, "we might be missing out on key steps of muscular and sensory development," she said. "For learning, how about we slow it down?"

Roncesvalles went on to add that "If you challenge children to a 'slow bike' race, they will be forced to use a whole different level of control. They will learn to use vision as a basis for working in 'space.' They will learn to feel particular muscles that tighten and use certain kinesthetic feedback in the joints and skin to help them center their bodies."

An Evening Well Spent

All in all, Learn to Ride Your Bike Night was an evening of skills acquired and lessons learned. For some who were there, it held particular promise.

Bregendahl summed it up this way: "I'm really happy that I was part of this event that gives hope not just for the kids but also for their parents--that nothing is out of reach, given a nurturing environment."

HESS Faculty
Forge Ties With
Special-Needs Community

HESS Facilities:

Bike Night:

Photo provided by Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center

SPAN Meetings:

  • South Plains Autism Network (SPAN) holds meetings at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month during the school year. Key says the meetings take place in HESS facilities.

Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research: