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Biking With My Autistic Son

A Personal Perspective: The dignity and reward of taking some risks.

Key points

  • Parents of children with autism may be too cautious and hinder their child's growth.
  • We can learn to take calculated risks as an autism family and reap the benefits.
  • Sometimes what was old can become new again.

My autistic son Nat’s most beautiful skill is riding a bike. Like me, he’s been riding since he was 7. My dad taught him, just as he taught me. At that point, bike riding was the most “normal” thing we’d ever done with Nat—miraculously so.

The Dignity of Risk

Nat’s biking was also our first experience with balancing his growth with the dangers of the world, or experimenting with the "dignity of risk." And what a risk it was: As soon as Nat gained confidence on that little two-wheeler, he took off around the block before we could stop him. As I ran after him with my heart in my throat, I told myself two things: He was safely on the sidewalk, not in the street, and would probably stay that way; and that he would know to go around the block and come back. But for several long minutes, my severely autistic son was out of my sight and out of my reach and I was more afraid than I've ever been in my life.

When I saw him reappear at the corner, and roll down our hill with a huge smile and triumphant glint in his eye, I knew that he was hooked for life, just like I was. He had found a way to be free; he had, at last, found a world that he could master. And now we had something really fun that we could do together.

Although I am a little stressed out when I ride with Nat, I do enjoy it anyway. Even now that he's 32, I cannot rid myself of my fear for his safety, though, because I never know for sure that he is paying full attention to other people or cars. I ride behind him, ready to speed up at a moment’s notice or call out to him to stop or go slow. Like those early biking days, I don't know for certain what he will and won't do. There is definitely risk involved, but it is worth it.

For years, we have ridden on the Cape as well as our small part of Boston's "Emerald Necklace" park. His familiarity has made him an expert on that ride.

During the pandemic, Nat left his group home to live with us because we thought it would be a safer environment for him. Riding with Nat became a favorite activity because we could be outside playing together and did not have to wear masks after the first terrible phase of COVID-19. We would venture just a little bit farther each time, ending our Emerald Necklace ride with a donut stop. Even though there were some tough city intersections, we would leave early enough in the morning that traffic would be mild.

Riding Through Boston's Victory Gardens Together

Recently my husband discovered a new bike ride for us, to the Victory Gardens in Boston’s Fenway area. These gardens were started during World War II to grow vegetables for the war effort. They have since become an entire public park with fields of floral and vegetable displays.

Each one is walled off, just like any community garden, but, unlike most of those, the fences between plots are high and covered with flowering vines, creating living garden walls rather than the usual rickety chicken wire boxes. The ground between the garden walls is covered with soft mulch, perfect for a stroll or my slow mountain bike. Because of the densely covered borders, you can catch only a glimpse here and there of what’s inside. Sometimes I come across a wildflower garden with tall fuchsia phlox and a tiny hidden pond, or a formal pergola covered with grapevines, or a stone riverbed, or even a brass gong. We ride until we reach the outer borders of the Victory Gardens park, and rest our bikes against a tree. They wait for me while I take off inside the gardens.

And then, it is as if we have opened the door and entered Dorothy’s technicolor Munchkinland. Though Nat and Ned are no gardeners, the place works its magic on them, too. No one seems to mind my indeterminate wandering. No one is pacing, waiting for the next thing. We are suspended in the moment. Past and present collide for us—naughty, scary, 7-year-old Nat taking off on his bike, and 32-year-old Nat waiting patiently, tall and golden like a sunflower, standing by his bike, with his dad—Indulging me now, as I once did him. Our old and new selves mix together, and then we become something new: just a family out for a ride. Nothing spectacular, and, yet, in our own autism family way, utterly so.

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