Learning how to ride a bike can be a challenge. For youth with autism and their families, those challenges can be magnified—but so, too, can the successes. Joelle Galatan, a high school senior from Queens, is working with Bike New York to make sure that youth with autism and other learning disabilities get the opportunity to experience the benefits of this meaningful milestone.
“I wanted to create a place where kids who never thought they could ride, wHether they’re eight or 18, could learn in a positive community.”
Like hundreds of other cyclists, Joelle participated in the 2017 TD Five Boro Bike Tour as a charity rider. Her Tour campaign raised money and awareness for the ELIJA (Empowering Long Island’s Journey Through Autism) School, where her younger sister, Talia—who has autism—is a student. After the Tour, Joelle wanted to do even more to use cycling to help support students like her sister, so she approached Bike New York about organizing a series of Learn-to-Ride classes in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Her goal was simple: “I wanted to create a place where kids who never thought they could ride, whether they’re eight or 18, could learn in a positive community,” she said.
“So many of these kids’ lives are filled with setbacks. Learning to ride is good for them physically, socially, emotionally, and they’re able to accomplish something. Parents can see that their kid can ride like any other kid — and that’s exciting,” she explained during a recent class where about a dozen students made all kinds of strides, accompanied by their parents or aids, and guided by Bike New York Instructor Lawrence Rotundo and a handful of enthusiastic volunteers.
With a background in therapeutic recreation, Lawrence talks about the range of benefits students experience during class. “They’re continually learning about their bodies—how to tolerate new and different environments and how to interact with those environments in the most effective way possible, whether its discovering their balance, learning what brakes do, handling their bike, or being able to effectively communicate, navigate, be safe, and, most importantly, have fun,” he said. And it’s not just the youth who benefit.
“One of the best things about teaching this class is coaching parents to model skills and behaviors, and then watching them become better leaders from afar, and trusting that their kids will be alright.”
“One of the best things about teaching this class is coaching parents to model skills and behaviors, and then watching them become better leaders from afar and trusting that their kids will be alright,” Lawrence said. “I see looks of concern on parents’ face—while their children head downhill on a bicycle—turn into faces filled with joy and pride when they realize that their kids can do it on their own.”