Cycling and Autism

In this piece primary school teacher Dave Tobin and physiotherapist Maeve Howlett outline the immense health, therapeutic and social inclusion benefits of cycling for children with autism. Both have decades of experience and expertise of working with young people with autism in their respective fields.

Children with autism are very often some of the most creative and detail oriented children within the classroom. They are keen observers and are incredibly resilient, accepting and honest. In addition to the huge positives children with autism bring to school and family life, they also have a number of common challenges which may include:

• Difficulty with social interaction
• Delayed or limited communication skills
• Sensory processing difficulties
• Restrictive patterns of behaviour or interests
• Delays and difficulties with motor skills development
• Stereotypical behaviours
• Concentration difficulties

Some of the motor skills problems that children with Autism experience include difficulties with balance, postural stability, joint flexibility and movement speed. The secondary consequence of motor skills difficulties include avoidance of group activities including team sports and therefore decreased opportunity for physical activity and social interaction. We would firmly maintain that our cities and schools must provide support and facilities to allow all children to avail of the right amount of physical activity for optimum health and wellbeing.

Exercise of all kinds increases opportunities for social interaction and improves social motivation and communication for all children but especially for children with autism. It promotes calmness and relaxation while also having clear improvements in physical health. Physical stimulation obtained through body rocking, arm flapping and spinning can decrease with regular daily exercise. As with all school children, physical exertion helps children with autism to complete classroom tasks with increased accuracy. 

Motor Skills and FUNdamental Movement Skills

If we examine motor skills and fundamental movement skills we can very clearly focus on the benefits cycling in particular can bring to children with autism. With many of these children experiencing roadblocks in developing different aspects of their motor skills, the development of physical literacy is a key part of their schooling and life skills development.  hey may need more time and support to learn to cycle but once accomplished their sense of achievement is powerful. The therapeutic and emotional benefits gained are very worthwhile.

The Move Well, Move Often programme (PDST, 2017) has been rolled out in schools in recent years and has a far more skills and assessment focused take on physical literacy than previous physical education programmes. It has been adapted for use by many Special Education Needs (SEN) teachers in Irish primary schools over the past number of years for both individual and group teaching of fundamental movement skills. When looking at these skills it’s important to understand that while they may be given specific instruction during motor skills teaching with children with autism, all of these physical literacy skills are complementary and interconnected. While locomotion and manipulative skills may be easier to teach within a standard school PE hall setting, the stability skills benefit hugely from extra interventions such as horse riding or cycling. 

From Move Well, Move Often – Book 1 (p4)

For many children with autism regulation of sensory inputs can be a particular challenge. They may be overloaded by noisy, busy environments. Proprioceptive (body awareness) and vestibular (balance) sensory senses can often be challenging areas too. This can lead to a more limited ability to explore their environment and, in turn, less opportunity to develop their sensory systems, resilience and relationships with peers. Children with motor difficulties require activities that challenge these systems to help them to improve and develop. They need activities that challenge balance, coordination and motor planning such as cycling to help address these sensory issues. Activities such as these have a hugely calming influence on the sensory systems of children with autism. 

Social Skills Development

Social skills, difficulties with social interactions and making meaningful and lasting connections with peers is a key focus of a lot of school aged interventions. A huge aspect of the teaching of primary school aged children focuses on building and developing these skills. Children with autism have both discrete social skills teaching and social group teaching as part of their school-based interventions. Cycling to school with peers in a group or a cycle bus helps develop a sense of belonging and community with their peers that sits perfectly alongside this. The shared communal routines provide incredible benefits to their levels of social interaction, communication skills and most importantly their self-confidence. 

The importance of cycling to both children’s feelings of belonging and inclusion within a group and their mental health cannot be overstated. This is especially important as children reach adolescence where interests and behaviours develop. A shared hobby such as cycling gives children a sense of belonging and a common interest. It also ensures that the exercise they need to help self-regulate is an enjoyable and communal experience. Having the outlet for their feelings is an especially important part of guiding children with autism through this particular phase of their lives and having a solid peer group such as a cycling group strengthens this resilience.

We know that physical activity rates decrease from childhood to adolescence. Older individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) living in community settings have been observed to live very sedentary lifestyles. If children with ASD do not develop participation skills in active leisure time activities, they will most likely become increasingly sedentary with age placing them at risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. We must therefore strive to encourage physical activity for these children in our schools and communities.

What can we actually do then to support children with autism to avail of the benefits of cycling?

For these children the interventions we need, while very similar to those of other children, have specific benefits for all children and are cornerstones of good child-centred design.

  • Further investment in services for children with autism that allow physiotherapists and occupational therapists to prioritise adapted physical activity including cycling as an intervention.
  • Further investment in support for children with autism to avail of in-school bike training
  • The development of secondary and connecting cycle network routes that act as quietways (see here for an article on quietways) that reduce sensory overload for children. The importance of the School Streets initiatives cannot be overstated in this regard and should be a key focus for local authorities going forward. There is a huge role for the metropolitan area transport strategies (such as the Limerick Shannon Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy, LSMATS), the National Transport Authority and local authorities in delivering these, and they should be  key recommendations when the draft strategies are being reviewed.
  • The installation of an adequate number of safe, covered bike parking on school grounds including space to accommodate trikes and non-standard bike sizes.
  • An increase in funding for Green Schools transportation projects to enable these changes. 

Support children with autism to learn to cycle and provide the infrastructure to keep them cycling, and they will gain life-long benefits for their physical and emotional wellbeing.  Of equal importance, they will have increased opportunities for meaningful daily social interactions.

Some additional reading: