How to teach an autistic or neurodivergent child to ride a bike

Cycling not only gets the kids outside, but helps build their confidence and independence, and helps them burn off some energy while having fun.

But not all children are the same. If you or someone you know has a child who is autistic or neurodivergent, then teaching them to ride a bike — something that can give them a great amount of enjoyment —  can present many challenges.

So here’s some insight into how the learning to ride a bike experience for autistic and neurodivergent children will differ from their neurotypical peers. We’ve called on the expertise of Karen Wood, co-founder of Kidvelo Bikes, to talk us through how to teach an autistic child to ride a bike, and how Kidvelo’s bikes in particular can help with the process.

Most kids’ cycling journeys start out on a balance bike before progressing to a pedal bike, and then getting a new, larger bike every time they have a growth spurt. However, children with autism tend to be much older before showing any interest in cycling, by which point they are often too big for balance bikes.

While it may make sense to jump straight into searching for big balance bikes for taller children, first it’s important to understand the unique needs of autistic children, and how the traditional path to cycling may not work for them.

How to teach an autistic child to ride a bike: This photo shows a young boy riding a Kidvelo balance bike, and his older brother running alongside him, in a quiet street full of trees.

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Karen Wood, co-founder of Kidvelo, pictured in front of a tree wearing a floral scarf

About the author

Karen Wood is the co-founder of Kidvelo Bikes, a specialist balance bike company that manufactures learn-to-ride bikes for children aged 18 months to 8 years old. She was also a medical product specialist, working with children’s disability teams, physiotherapists, and occupational health OT’s before moving into the bike industry.

Karen's desire to help children with disabilities stemmed from witnessing a severely autistic child who also had dyspraxia, being told he would never ride a bike by a healthcare professional. His bedroom wall was covered in posters of bikes and his face was crestfallen. Her aim with the Kidvelo range was to give children normally excluded from cycling the opportunity to experience the freedom of riding a bike.

With 15 years of experience in the balance bike industry, having taught thousands of kids to ride and race bikes, Kidvelo was founded in 2019 to make bikes for children of all ages and all abilities.

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Do autistic children struggle to ride bikes?

For most children, a balance bike is the perfect way to get started on two wheels. It’s a simple bike without pedals fitted, that they operate by walking along with their feet on the ground. This helps them to develop the balancing skills that are fundamental to learning to ride a bike without ever needing to fit stabilisers. 

Bikes with stabilisers feel unstable, and the rider needs help turning or lifting them as they are so heavy. Kids with short attention spans struggle with this as it takes far too much effort, so there's a risk of them developing a dislike for riding.

Children with autism or neurodivergence may not typically embrace learning to ride a bike because there is so much going on at once, especially when they’re given a clunky bike with stabilisers, and need to navigate pedalling and steering simultaneously, not to mention braking, balancing and speed control. 

Add to this the fact that many autistic children crave familiarity and don’t welcome change, the process of upsizing to a different bike that they then need to get used to as they grow makes the entire experience a lot for them. It can take far too much effort, and result in frustration at best, and at worst, them disliking cycling altogether.

How to teach an autistic child to ride a bike: A young boy on a Kidvelo balance bike on a leafy suburb street. His dad is lifting the front of the bike to simulate a wheelie, and his brother is walking alongside him and holding a football

Can you teach an autistic child to ride a bike?

Of course you can, you just need to approach it with the understanding that the process will be different for them.

Having worked with children with developmental delay for several years, I knew that the solution was to break down the steep learning curve and harness the benefits of the balance bike. With a balance bike, children ride with their feet on the ground, which can feel like a much safer option. Lightweight balance bikes, like the Kidvelo Rookie range, make it easy for them to lean from side to side as they steer, teaching them balance through feel. No explanations necessary, it’s all intuitive.

I realised that this simple intuitive method would help older children too; they just needed bigger balance bikes!

 

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How to teach an autistic child to ride a bike with Kidvelo

This is where the Kidvelo Rookie range comes in. Starting at 14 inches and going all the way up to 24 inches, the Rookie is a convertible 2-in-1 balance bike that transforms into a pedal bike when your child is ready for the next step.

They help kids learn to balance first before moving onto pedalling, through a series of natural progressive steps, all on one bike. This method works brilliantly with children who don’t like change. They’re an absolute game changer for parents of autistic children and can accommodate kids up to the age of 8.

What’s more, unlike heavy bikes with stabilisers or trikes, the convertible 2-in-1 Rookie helps children to learn and improve their skills without realising it. They are simply having fun riding on two wheels from the start. Whether using their feet or pedals to propel the bike, their confidence increases and their gross motor skills improve. It’s much easier to entertain a child outside if they’re doing something that they enjoy.

For autistic and neurodiverse children who don’t like change, using the same bike to learn to balance, control brakes and speed, and then to pedal, allows for progressive learning in manageable little steps. Once the pedal-kit is fitted, all they need to learn is to turn pedals rather than walk it along.

And if your child regresses, then simply turn it back into their easy-to-use balance bike and wait until they are ready to try again.

The best thing is to allow your child frequent opportunities to ride when they show interest. In terms of practicality, choose a safe wide space when using the bikes. This is especially helpful for children who are ‘runners’. Kidvelo customers have shared their experiences that this behaviour can change when riding a bike, compared to walking. Whilst we haven’t started the scientific research to prove this yet, it could be that their focus has changed to what they are doing rather than getting to somewhere, but we would love to learn more from your experiences. Please leave a comment if you have anything to share in this regard!

Before you start take a moment to grab your FREE kids bike buying checklist to help you record all the information you need to find the perfect bike for your child. 

How to teach an autistic child to ride a bike: A lineup of Kidvelo balance bikes in different colours on a plain background

Kidvelo Rookie balance bikes

Buying a balance bike that will fit through several years of growth, which then turns into a pedal bike, is a safe investment. Regardless of how long your child spends in balance mode, the option to try pedals when they seem ready, and to easily switch back if required, takes the pressure off having to buy two lightweight bikes.

The key bikes in the Kidvelo Rookie range are the 14 and 18 inch models.

Kidvelo Rookie 18 Balance / Pedal Bike

Kidvelo rookie 18 balance to pedal bike

The Kidvelo Rookie 18 is a great bike for slightly older children who may not have learnt to ride yet and will likely start pedalling soon.

It is aimed at ages 5 to 8 years old and starts off as a large balance bike and then if and when your child is ready to try out pedals the Rookie 18 then easily converts to a pedal bike, with a simple-to-fit pedal conversion kit. So you essentially get 2 bikes for the price of one.

You can convert easily if your child needs to try pedals for a short time and then revert back to a balance bike for a while longer. It’s designed to work effortlessly in either balance bike or pedal bike mode.

The Rookie 18 balance-to-pedal bike is also a popular choice for children with additional needs who may want to learn their balance using the balance bike mode and then have the opportunity to progress to using pedals.

We’ve reviewed the Kidvelo Rookie 12, which was the first bike in their range, and were very impressed.

Rider reviews

There are many reviews over on the Kidvelo website from parents who never thought their child would ride a bike.
Martyn says: "The Kidvelo Rookie 18 balance bike has been an absolute game changer for my son. He is developmentally delayed and struggles with the concept of pedals but finding a bike for suitable for his height and weight has proved very difficult. He got the Rookie 18 for his 7th birthday and within a week he was whizzing around the local park full of confidence - and is always asking when he can next get out on it!"

Get support from Kidvelo

Kidvelo's mission is to make bikes that allow all children the opportunity of cycling. Every bike purchase comes with a free detailed guide, to get the best out of a Kidvelo, with tips for how to get your child to engage with their new bike. 

Their responsive UK-based customer service is handled by Karen Wood (one of the founders). You can email her directly for advice at [email protected] 

 

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Before you go….. 

If you’re trying to decide whether to get your toddler a balance bike or a pedal bike with stabilisers this Christmas it’s worth understanding the difference between the two. We usually (but not always) recommend a balance bike.

Our blog Does my child need stabilisers? explains everything you need to know!

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