For my autistic son, learning to ride a bike means freedom on two wheels


At 12 years old, he's too big for his little brother's hand-me-down bicycle, but neither of us cares much about that.

These small, joyful moments are how I measure my days with my oldest son - the boy who can't talk, the boy who understands more than I know, the boy who was a mystery to me from the day he was born.

All week long, I ran alongside my son Dominic in the middle of our suburban street, pulling him back from the curb and watching out for cars. My back began to hurt almost immediately, and the running made my anemic lungs ache. At first he didn't even understand how to pedal. And he couldn't steer to save his life.

"Look straight ahead, buddy! Push, push, push!" I screamed out to him, not even knowing if he understood my words. I am sure the neighbors thought we were crazy, a 37-year-old woman pushing a near-teenager on a bike with Disney characters on it.

Who really cares anymore, though. That's the healthy part about autism -- you quickly learn to free yourself from the shackles of what other people think.

He's the last one to learn, of the six kids in my house. I taught them all, from the teenage girl who is now learning to drive down to the first-grade boy who just learned to read. I should put that on my resume. There's not much else to measure the wins of the last 15 years of my life. As I lugged my 115-pound son and the laughable Disney bicycle around, I wondered how I could spin this accomplishment into a marketable job qualification. "Overcame the trying personalities of six mostly ungrateful youth and successfully aided them in adapting to utilize a pedal-driven recreational vehicle." In my exhaustion, that almost sounded good to me.

All of the kids in the neighborhood came out to cheer us on, as Dominic and I made our way up and down the pavement every afternoon. They ran in the street on either side of us, sidestepping and galloping to keep up.

"That's a good boy, Dominic!" they shouted, approvingly, despite the fact that they were five or six years younger than him. Despite the fact that they had been riding two-wheelers for two or three summers now. In the evenings, I watched from the front porch as these same children did wheelies and bumped their mountain bikes off the steep curbs, calling out to any grown person who would take the time to kindly pay attention. Look, Dominic's mom -- I can ride with no hands. Look at me. Look. Look.

I always paid attention. I always looked. It seemed, to me, like the least a grown person could do for a child.

Back at it the next afternoon, I gave a running monologue of How To Ride A Bicycle to my son, who was not born to listen.

"Here is what you do. You put your feet on the pedals. You keep your head up. You look ahead at where you're going -- never to the sides, never at where you've been. You have to push really hard." Halfway into it, I was huffing and puffing, trying to get the words out and to figure out when to let go. That's the hardest part about teaching a child to ride a bicycle -- knowing the exact moment to finally let go.

Dominic doesn't talk -- autism took that away from us. But then he doesn't complain, either. He just keeps getting back on the bike, he just keeps on going. I don't think he knows that he can refuse. This occurred to me, with a heady jolt, as he climbed back on the bicycle for the 697th time that afternoon, finally looking frustrated.

I thought about telling him he could stop: using my limited sign language to signal, we're finished, and then punctuating the sign by pointing the bicycle back toward our house.

But then it happened. It felt right. And I let go.

When I let go, he kept going. All on his own.

He rode up the hill, past the neighbor kids who were playing baseball in a front yard a few houses down. Past our house, where he stays up late watching the same videos every night, of roller coasters at amusement parks he will probably never visit. Dominic pedaled his brother's bicycle on and on. And he looked straight ahead, blocking out the sounds of the children cheering, of his mother shouting, of all the other noises that must make the autism so painful to him and his world so small.

It's a small thing, to ride a bicycle. But when you know your son will never drive a car, never leave your house, never truly be free from your fear, it's a big gift. For us both.

To be able to fly around on two wheels, alone.


Autism is a crazy ride, but sometimes everything falls into place.

Sometimes, when the going gets tough -- you get back on your bicycle.

And you Just. Keep. Going.

And for my son and me, well, that's pretty much how it went.

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Jankowski is a mom of four kids and two awesome stepkids, a divorcee and a writer.


Special to The Washington Post · Nicole Jankowski


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