Teaching Your Sensory-Sensitive Child to Ride a Bike

Spring has sprung, and it’s time to break out the bikes! Learning to ride a bike is a right of passage for many children, and it’s a skill they can take with them their entire lives.

While SPD and other sensory issues present some unique challenges, you can help your child feel safe and confident by breaking the process up into small, simple steps and allowing him to go at his own pace. Below is a method we’ve found successful with our own children–feel free to use it as a starting point and modify as needed.

Above all, stay positive and remember to celebrate the small victories. Good luck!

Sensory Challenges

The Issue: Sensory Overload

Becoming irritated or overwhelmed by physical sensations like the wind blowing in his face, uncomfortable safety gear, or the sight of objects whizzing by quickly

What to Do

Let your child pick out his own helmet and pads and add extra cloth or padding if needed. Introduce new textures and sensations slowly.

The Issue: Vestibular Processing

Problems with balance, motion, or spatial orientation, such as feeling out of control, unsteady, or too far away from the ground

What to Do

Consider getting a tricycle, scooter, or balance bike first. Practice balancing and moving with speed before making the leap to a regular bike.

The Issue: Motor-Based Problems

Difficulties maintaining stamina, determining the order in which to make certain movements, or coordinating different muscle groups

What to Do

Break new skills down into small, simple steps and use repetition to reinforce new concepts. Physically guide your child through the process.

The Issue: Sensory Discrimination

Inability to properly gauge the distance between objects, the different shapes of street signs, or how much force is being used to pedal or turn

What to Do

Practice telling the difference between the shapes of two signs, the distance between two toys, or whether  he’s going fast or slow. Make it a game and have him try to “trick” you.

The Issue: Fear

Meltdowns, anxiety, or refusal to practice caused by any of the above issues

What to Do

Be supportive and patient. Make sure your child is regulated before you begin, and allow him to go at his own pace.

Note

Learning to Ride

  1. Have your child sit on the bike and stand directly in front of him so he can see everything you’re doing and knows you’re in control. Slowly move the handlebars left to right, back and forth, so he can both see and feel the movement.
  2. Have him practice getting on and off the bike while you continue to hold it steady.
  3. Slightly tilt the bike in either direction, as if it’s going to fall, and have him practice “catching” himself by leaning and putting his foot down on the correct side.
  4. Continue to hold the handlebars and have him practice getting on and off as you tilt. Make sure to practice on both sides until he’s comfortable.
  5. Stand behind the bike and repeat step #3 using the balance bar. When he’s comfortable with his footing, start tipping the bike farther–just enough so that he must catch himself.
  6. Use the balance bar to push the bike slowly forward. Have him practice steering while you keep the bike upright and steady. Move on to pedaling and braking when he’s mastered steering.
  7. Continue to hold on, but encourage him to go faster. Make a game of seeing if he can “make Mommy/Daddy run.” Let him be completely in control of speed and stopping. 
  8. Tell him you can let go whenever he’s ready–and when he tells you to let go, do it! Practice pedaling and stopping over and over until he doesn’t fall and can confidently control the bike on his own.
  9. Start working on turns. Place cones or toys in a parking lot or other open space and have him weave around and through them. Focus on slowing down and making wide swings around objects, and move the objects closer together as he gets comfortable.

Have another suggestion? Let us know in the comments!

E-Learning Resources for Children of All Ages

At Twenty-One Senses, our mission has always been to help families with sensory issues navigate typical childhood events, play spaces, and activities. However, we recognize the world is quickly changing and all families, not just those with special needs, are adjusting to a new way of life.

To better support social distancing measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, we will be pausing our regular programming to focus on e-learning resources for children of all ages and abilities. We’ll be adding to the list regularly, so check back often. Please share it on social media or with anyone you think might find it useful. Finally, let us know if you’ve found a great resource we should include.

We believe in the power of community, cooperation, and positivity in the face of adversity. While there are certainly challenges ahead, we can all use this moment to pause and reflect on the things that matter most: our families and our communities. 

Take care of yourselves and each other.

Sensory Spotlight: Auditory (Sound)

This is the second installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

The auditory system is responsible for the body’s sense of hearing. It allows us to detect and locate sounds in our environment, to identify them, and to determine which sounds are important and which can be tuned out. Children with auditory processing issues may crave loud or repetitive noises, become overwhelmed or distracted by everyday sounds, or be unable to detect sounds in their environment. You can read more about how the auditory system works on the STAR Institute’s website.

See below for a quick guide on identifying auditory seeking, avoiding, and discrimination issues in children.

Auditory Seekers May:

  • Seek out loud or busy environments.
  • Seem to always be yelling or speaking too loudly.
  • Make repetitive sounds, such as clapping, tapping, or clicking.
  • Have difficulty focusing on a task without humming or making noise.
  • Prefer to have constant background noise, such as music, TV, or a fan.
  • Insist on listening to TV or music at a volume that is uncomfortable to others.

Auditory Avoiders May:

  • Seek out quiet or secluded environments.
  • Frequently cover their ears and react to loud or high-pitched noises as if in pain.
  • Become easily distracted by background noises others can’t detect.
  • Be bothered or extremely irritated by repetitive or specific sounds.
  • Be startled and extremely frightened by unexpected sounds.
  • Become overwhelmed and frustrated while working in loud, busy environments.
  • Engage in repetitive, self-soothing activities, such as rocking or chewing.

Those with Auditory Discrimination Disorder May:

  • Speak too loudly or too softly.
  • Appear unresponsive or confused when given verbal directions.
  • Take longer than usual to process and respond to verbal directions.
  • Be unable to distinguish between background and foreground noises.
  • Have difficulty distinguishing between similar sounding words (cat, rat, sat).

Sensory Spotlight: What Is SPD?

This is the first installment of our nine-part Sensory Spotlight series.

Sensory processing occurs when the brain receives and organizes information from external sources, such as light or sound, and internal bodily cues, such as hunger or balance. Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) do not respond to this everyday sensory information the same way most people do. They may feel bombarded or assaulted by even the smallest bit of stimulation, or they might be unable to recognize even very extreme sensations or changes in their environment. Studies suggest as many as 1 in 20 people have sensory processing issues, and symptoms are typically much more pronounced in children.

Children with SPD often have a hard time fitting in with their peer group. They might show signs of anxiety or depression, be withdrawn, struggle socially and academically, or appear clumsy. Many children have learned to cope with their symptoms in ways that might appear odd to others, such as rocking, constantly learning on walls or furniture, sucking on their thumbs or other objects, etc.

SPD is generally broken down into the three patterns and thirteen subtypes listed below. Keep in mind the exact symptoms will vary greatly from one individual to the next. Many people with SPD demonstrate a combination of sensitivities and seeking/avoiding behaviors, depending on their level of arousal and how familiar they are with their current environment.

Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)

Sensory Over-Responsivity (Hypersensitivity) – Over-responsive individuals, or avoiders, are hyperaware of sensory input and may have extreme or upsetting reactions to even mild stimulation, such as crying out in pain while brushing their hair or gagging at very faint smells. Avoiders often feel overloaded and overwhelmed by everyday situations and may appear anxious, withdrawn, or defensive as a result.

Sensory Under-Responsivity (Hyposensitivity) – Those who are under-responsive have difficulties detecting and/or responding to sensory input in a timely manner. They might not notice that the lighting or temperature in the room has changed, for example, or that they’ve bumped into something and injured themselves. As a result, under-responsive individuals often appear distracted, dismissive, or clumsy.

Sensory Craving – Sensory cravers, or seekers, have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for sensory stimulation, though they tend to become more keyed up and deregulated as they take in more input. Seekers usually demonstrate behaviors associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such low impulse control and constant moving, fidgeting, bumping into things, or fiddling with objects.

Pattern 2: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)

Postural Disorder – Postural disorder affects the body’s ability to stabilize itself and maintain a sense of balance. Individuals with this subtype often have problems slouching or bad posture. They might also appear to be weak, move awkwardly, or have extremely low endurance.

Dyspraxia (Motor Planning Problems) – Those with dyspraxia have difficulty planning and performing new, nonhabitual gross and fine motor tasks. They might appear to have extremely poor hand-eye coordination, problems with concentration, and take much longer than their peers to learn a new skill.

Pattern 3: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)

Individuals with this pattern have difficulty recognizing and interpreting sensory information. They’re often unable to gauge the physical differences between objects, such as size, color, shape, or distance. They might be unaware of the pressure or force they’re exerting at a given moment and appear awkward, clumsy, and prone to spilling drinks or breaking toys.

SDD is further broken down into eight subtypes, one for each sensory system:

  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Tactile
  • Vestibular
  • Olfactory
  • Gustatory
  • Proprioception
  • Interoception

We’ll be taking a deeper dive into each of these systems, including strategies for supporting children with SPD, as our Sensory Spotlight series continues. Stay tuned!

Additional Resources:

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Traveling with Sensory Needs

The holidays are just barely over, but Spring Break is already coming up fast! Whether you’re planning on relaxing at home or flying off to Disney World, accounting for your child’s sensory sensitivities can feel overwhelming–but, with a little extra thought and careful planning, it can be done!

See below for a few of our favorite tips on tackling spring break and traveling with sensory needs.

Tips for Traveling with Sensory Needs

  • Don’t stop at online research. Call up the resort, park, or club and talk about your child’s specific needs and available accommodations. (Disney, for example, has a wide variety of services for patrons with disabilities.)
  • Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you can, rent a house or Airbnb instead of getting a hotel room. This will give you more control over meal prep, baths, and sleeping arrangements.
  • Practice good transitions. Take the few minutes between activities to make sure your child has a bathroom break, a snack, or even just a few deep breaths.
  • Pack for your child’s sensory triggers. Helpful items might include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, smelling jars, or a picky eater’s favorite snack.
  • Plan your stops. If you’re driving, pack a cooler and eat at rest areas or parks instead of restaurants. Build in time to let your child run around and burn off excess energy.
  • Keep your own expectations in check. Leave plans open-ended whenever possible. Rather than trying to stick to a rigid schedule, try to do just one or two things each day.
  • Make sure your child knows what to expect. Print out maps, brochures, and photos from Google or Yelp and go over them together. Practice waiting in line and develop strategies for dealing with overwhelming situations.
  • Build in downtime. Each member of the family should have time to go for a walk, read a book, or do whatever calms and centers them. Remember, taking time for yourself will allow you to be more present and able to fully enjoy your time together.

Some Tips for Staying Home

  • Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you do need to change up your family’s schedule, talk to your child about how this week will be different than usual.
  • Take day trips. Shorter, focused outings are generally cheaper and allow you to maintain more control over meals, timing, etc.
  • Look for less trafficked alternatives to popular destinations. Check out smaller train or art museums, or go see your local minor league team instead of the Cubs.
  • Know when other schools are on break. Keep in mind that play places and other popular destinations will be much, much busier than usual.