A special guest post by Amy Heuston Special Education Teacher at Central High School in Rapid City, SD
I watched in awe and exhilaration as I cheered on two of our school’s Special Olympics athletes recently in the Special Needs Races at the Strider World Championship. Sweet, yet quite competitive, 13-year-old Ali led most of the race, agilely keeping just ahead of 19-year-old Grady. His longer legs and strong stature gave him a powerful push, and he edged past her at the finish.
As we congratulated each other with hugs, I smiled with pride and pure joy. I could hardly believe that just two years prior, neither of them had ridden a two-wheeled bike. And here they were, speeding along on STRIDER Balance Bikes, nimbly navigating cones and ramps, then celebrating with friends and family as they enjoyed the freedom and accomplishment of riding a bicycle—a milestone that many of us take for granted.
As a Special Education Teacher at Central High School in Rapid City, SD, I use 13 STRIDER Bikes with my students. They aren’t just an “extra” developmental tool, they’re a huge part of our program. We keep them in our classroom and use the bikes often. We incorporate the STRIDERs with our science curriculum to demonstrate their ability while riding to “observe or experience speed,” which is one of the areas they need to understand on the standardized tests. I also integrate examples and exercises using STRIDERs into their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
We knew the STRIDERs would have physical benefits, which were confirmed by a recent study of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). But I have seen their impact in five areas; PT, OT, Speech, Behavioral and Social. What we’ve seen with our students aligns with studies such as Motor Profile of Children With Developmental Speech and Language Disorder, which found that, “developmental speech and language disorders are frequently associated with motor problems … The findings support the need to give early and more attention to the motor skills of children with developmental speech and language disorders in the educational and home setting, with special attention to children whose speech is affected.”
This research article, The Motor-Cognitive Connection: Early Fine Motor Skills as an Indicator of Future Success, states, “There is a clear connection in the circuitry of the brain between areas controlling fine motor skills and areas controlling cognition … These areas are developing simultaneously, with exceptional speed during early brain development.”
1. Physical Therapy (PT): Grady is just one of my students who has made great strides with his gross motor skills, balance and coordination from riding, and even transitioned to a pedal bike after nine months of riding the STRIDER Bike two to three times a week. The progression of walking and then striding on the bikes also helps improve core stability and strength. Some of the kids even show off their “BMX-style” tricks by standing up on the foot rests and sticking out one leg.
2. Occupational Therapy (OT): Many kids with autism also have Sensory Processing Disorder. This interrupts learning, as they want to crash and move, so it is hard to sit still and focus. Sensory seekers thrive from sensory input, and the “rushing” that goes by their ears as they ride a STRIDER provides this sensation.
Riding stimulates the vestibular system which we use to negotiate balance. It also helps the proprioceptive system, which refers to sensory input and feedback telling us about movement and body position. This physical movement and sensory input has a calming effect. One of my students has severe autism and riding a STRIDER helps calm him down.
Experts in SPD know riding bikes helps in several areas. The article Sensory Processing Disorder: Vestibular Dysfunction reinforces that, “Riding a bike is good for helping almost all of the senses, especially vestibular and proprioceptive. Balance can really be a struggle for lots of kids. Giving opportunities to have fun and practice using the vestibular system is important.”
Some teachers overlook the need for physical movement with kids with special needs. Every teacher has to figure out the reason. Is it just unusual behavior? Is he simply being “a boy?” Or is it SPD? One boy I have is a “bouncer” who bounces on a ball. He also bounces when he’s on his STRIDER.
3. Speech Therapy: I am positive that riding a STRIDER balance bike has increased the vocabulary of my students. When they experience something new, they talk about it with peers and family. One student rarely communicated last year. He loves being on a STRIDER so much that when we did karaoke, he insisted he do it while sitting on the bike, and he even made it “dance.”
He loves cops and robbers, so we put a picture of the siren on the handlebars. He would ride around the room making siren noises and talking to people. This year, his behaviors are better and his vocabulary has improved. I’m sure there are many contributing factors, but I believe the STRIDER is one of them.
4. Behavioral Interventions: In regard to student behaviors, I use the bikes both as a reward and also preventative measure. As a reward, they sometimes have to earn the opportunity to ride by showing good behavior. This works particularly well with some students, as the incentive to ride helps encourage them to focus on work.
As a preventative measure, I know riding helps calm them down. So if I see one of them getting agitated, I suggest we take a spin on the bike. I schedule time in our weekly plans to ride at least two or three times a week, but sometimes we ride all five days. When it’s nice, we ride outside. If it isn’t, we just take them around the halls. The administration understands how important time on the bikes is for our students.
5. Social Skills: Riding helps them to be socially accepted and do something their peers are doing—those with special needs and typical kids. We even play games together on STRIDERs at school.
The Adaptive PE teacher is also stoked about STRIDERs and has the kids compete against each other in a game kicking a large, lightweight Omnikin sport ball while riding the bikes. This helps develop their spatial awareness of self in relation to people and objects around them. While they’re competitively playing, they are looking up, paying attention and following the rules.
At least two of our Special Olympics athletes have even transitioned to pedal bikes, which makes me think of a sixth benefit of learning to ride: mobility. Riding gives them the opportunity to even ride to work someday, which would provide a more positive and independent future!
Some people who are outside the field of disabilities may say, “Oh, that’s cute,” when they see an individual with a disability riding a bike. They have no idea how challenging it can be to get that to the point of riding on two wheels, nor do they understand the impact riding has in several areas of their lives. The five areas above build upon each other; improved spatial awareness helps them feel more comfortable riding and spend more time doing it, which increases agility, balance and strength. With better behavior, their social skills with peers and family members improve.
Someday I want to pursue an MA and would love to do a research project on STRIDER’s impact in each of these areas. I know the results would be significant, as I see it every day in my school!