When Aimee Boiset’s son, Spencer, came home and told her he was learning how to ride a bike at school, she was floored. Most kids learn before second grade, but her sixthgrader had skipped that particular milestone. Part of the reason is because Spencer is autistic, which in his case makes him a little awkward and unsure of himself athletically. But Spencer and his classmates at the Faison School for Autism are not only learning to ride, they are benefiting in other ways from an interesting and instructive experiment with Richmond Pro Cycling.
Craig Dodson, founder of the professional bicycle racing team, initiated the idea at the school last year. His six-member cycling team races in the mid-Atlantic area during summer, and Dodson also asks each rider to work from 50 to 150 hours in community service. He wanted a partnership that would benefit both his team and another area nonprofit, and an acquaintance suggested the Faison School for Autism in Richmond.
Dodson, who has a master’s degree in movement science, knew nothing about autism. He did some reading on the disorder and learned that exercise was a highly recommended form of therapy. “The academic research was overwhelming,” he says. “Every paper agreed that exercise helps with behavioral patterns and stability in autistic youth.”
Autism is known as a “spectrum disorder,” meaning that it is a catch-all term for a wide range of symptoms. It includes high-functioning children with idiosyncratic social skills typical of Asperger’s Syndrome, and also children with more “classic” autistic symptoms such as a tendency toward anti-social and nonverbal behavior. Most autistic children typically have some trouble communicating with other children. They also tend to have self-esteem issues and some challenges with physical coordination.
Sarah Swope, Faison School director of development, agreed that the ten-year-old school badly needed a recreational component for its 82 students. And the bike was particularly appealing. “There are two things kids do,” she says. “Ride bikes and play video games. So if you can do those two things you are going to be included.”
Swope and Dodson spent several months structuring the cycling program, which began last spring and runs during the summers. They began with a group of six “high-functioning” students, with plans to eventually expand the program. The cycling team arrives every Wednesday morning and spends about an hour and a half with the students.
“Sometimes when people come to our school, they can be timid,” Swope says. “But the Richmond Pro guys just jumped right in.” Dodson began by teaching the kids about bike safety. After only a few weeks, the team began arriving to hear the students chanting, “Bike Guys! Bike Guys!”
After all of the children could ride, the team began creating different training games every week. “We have very limited resources,” Dodson says. “Some of the guys would go home and build ramps or curbs. Then we’d go to bike shops and Ask for bikes and helmet donations.”
For one game, Dodson created a mock paperboy route with cones and buckets. The kids had to ride the course and toss rolled-up newspapers into the buckets. “My goal is to work on kinetic multitasking,” Dodson says. The kids had to ride the bike, pick up a newspaper, throw it, make a turn and weave through cones. “Challenging both the brain and central nervous system is critical for anyone,” he says.
Before long, Dodson’s team started seeing changes in the students. “Autistic youth generally don’t show a lot of emotion,” he says. “These kids started out folding their arms, not looking at you, they were almost emotionless at times.” After a few weeks, Dodson says the kids opened up. “We were getting high-fives, and one kid even hugged one of our guys.”
Not surprisingly, the students are taking benefits home as well. Patricia Johnson’s son, Russell, already knew how to ride his bike when the program with the cycling team began. But even at age 16, he wasn’t allowed to ride alone in his Goochland neighborhood. “He’s a little obsessive-compulsive,” Johnson says. “I worried that he might be distracted by something on his ride and not pay attention to what he was doing.” After the safety program at the Faison School, Johnson felt comfortable enough to let her son ride on his own. “He asks to ride pretty much every day,” she says.
Aimee Boiset says Spencer is much more confident after the program. “He’s not normally one who likes to go out and exercise,” she says. “But this he looks forward to.” She says Spencer even asked for a bike for Christmas. He got one, and with it, the gift of confidence that comes from acquiring a new skill.