Today was my first day at Lose the Training Wheels. This program is being sponsored locally by Upstate New York Families for Effective Autism Treatment (UNYFEAT). It is a method that teaches children with autism and developmental delays how to independently ride a bike. Instead of a back wheel, there is a roller that provides more balance. As they master riding with that roller, they are called in for a "pit stop" to take a break and get a drink of water. The roller is then moved to the next one, which is more tapered on the ends. There is also a handle that is waist-high for volunteers to use to help keep the child on balance should they really start to tip. It also serves as a brake for those who can't slow down on their own. There are no brakes on these bikes.
80% of children who participate in this program are on their own two-wheeler by the end of the week. It is an amazing program. I went one day last year for "Family Day," to help my friend. She has two boys on opposite ends of the spectrum and they were both participating. You might know her from the blog "From the Mom Cave." I was absolutely amazed at what I saw and was bursting with pride that both of my buddies lost their training wheels. They were also ecstatic, as was their mother. I wondered if it would be possible to help some other kids at some point.
This past spring, I saw a post in my news feed from UNYFEAT, asking for volunteers for this year's program. I eagerly printed off the form and faxed it in. I checked off every possibility for helping: assisting kids, helping admin, you name it. I also checked off every possible session, because I would make sure I had nothing else going on this week.
The day the confirmation emails came in, I got five of them, confirming that I was helping in all five sessions. I got nervous. I have a hamstring injury from April that never quite healed properly. I knew it would be a lot of movement. Five sessions also means a really long day, longer than I am even in my classroom, making a really long week. I whittled it down by eliminating the first session, because they had enough volunteers.
To prepare for my first day, I made sure I took a few long walks during the past week, to exercise my legs. I packed a lunch with as many allergen-free foods as I could find, because I didn't want someone to get sick from something I ate. I also made sure I had plenty of protein, nutrient-packed energy foods, and bananas for sore muscles. When I showered, I used the shampoo and soap with the least amount of odor, as these kids tend to be sensitive to smells.
I arrived and was paired up with another Andrea to assist our new friend whom I will dub "Jacob." Jacob is 8 years old and loves Batman. He is very verbal, but tends to script from his favorite shows. He likes to have a schedule and may possibly need a reward system to keep him going. He grabbed my hand as soon as we were called over to the middle for a quick meeting and held onto it for a while. He also stood close to me while we were waiting our turn to get our bike. I felt an immediate connection and sense of trust between us, which was awesome.
He was nervous about riding the bike, but did quite well. He kept us at a nice, steady walking pace. Someone told me that four laps in the given space was the equivalent of a mile, so that kid actually rode close to six miles in his 75-minute session. He often took breaks after about four laps, which was fine. Breaks are supposed to be limited to about two minutes. He had no problem getting back on his bike when it was time. Our biggest issue was he is very sensitive to touch and I had a hard time unhooking his helmet at one point. I accidentally pinched him a little bit, but apparently that happens a lot. He also liked to take his hands off of the handlebars, to be like the big kids in his neighborhood. We would simply stop him with the handle in back if he didn't put them back on with prompting. He did an awesome job.
For the second session, I was paired up with a kid named Kevin. (Okay, kid is a relative term. He may have been in college or may have been in high school. I can't tell anymore.) We were with a girl whom I will call "Elizabeth." She is almost 13 years old and immediately informed us that she was being forced to do this and was not happy about it. I distracted her by asking her a lot of questions and quickly found out that she loves to ride horses. Even though you are supposed to have the kids focus on their riding, we found that she was more at ease when she was talking about animals. She quickly went through three roller changes and was riding pretty confidently by the end. I got a kick out of her tween attitude. We were fast friends.
For that second session, I started alternating with Kevin every other lap. Part of it was I was starting to get tired. The other part was Elizabeth was insisting that she could do it all by herself. That is not permitted, so one person at a time was a great compromise for her.
One of my favorite kids to watch was a boy I will call "Matthew." He had Down's Syndrome and got the biggest kick over running over every single one of the little cones around which they were supposed to ride. His laughter and glee was infectious. He wasn't quite following the rules, but he was actually riding.
We had an hour off for lunch. I ate and tried to read. I stretched a little bit and massaged my sore feet and legs. I don't own running shoes, so I am doing this in my most comfortable hiking boots.
I was really hoping that I would get another slow kid after lunch. By this point, I was closing in on 8 miles around that track. I got a little girl I will call "Jenny." My partner was one of the dads, named Doug. She tried to tell us that she was scared to ride the bike and couldn't do it. She took off like a bat out of you-know-where and was content to keep on riding without a break, while Doug and I sweat like crazy trying to walk with her. Unfortunately, everyone working knows Jenny, so they kept encouraging her to make us run! She would speed up near the spectators and then slow back down. She also quickly went through roller changes. By the end, I could no longer keep up with her fast bursts. First, I do not run. Second, my hamstring was starting to pop and tighten up. I wasn't stretching enough. I am in big trouble later this week!
They were kind enough to let me leave after that, instead of trying to do a fourth session. I knew there was no way to do it. I have been nursing myself all evening, in anticipation of having to do it again tomorrow and for the next few days.
Despite being exhausted and sore, though, I am content. I helped three kids today change their "I can't" attitude into "I can." The week is just beginning. A new chapter in their lives is opening up. I get to be a part of that. It gives me a warm and fuzzy like nothing else. I can't wait to find out what else I get to learn this week.
Check out Amy's posts from last year's Lose the Training Wheels:
Lose the Training Wheels!!!
Riding into Day Two of Lose the Training Wheels
Riding past Day Three of Lose the Training Wheels
Soaring high above Day Four of Lose the Training Wheels
Celebrating Losing the Training Wheels
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Thanks