Cycling Releases Sensory Stress for Autistic Riders

I wanted to kick off World Autism Month by bringing to light the benefits cycling has for someone on the spectrum. Back in 2017, I wrote a blog about my friend’s 15-year-old autistic son learning to ride a bike for the first time. It was really an emotional time for the whole family and educated me on the issues facing both kids and adults on the autism spectrum.

New bike day

There are many challenges and rewards for a cyclist with autism. Dealing with balance issues and sensory overload are the primary challenges, but the rewards include a sense of calmness and stress release. You don’t have to be autistic to reap the same rewards, it’s just at a different level.

When I was researching autism and cycling for my 2017 blog post I came across an article about Patrick McCallister. Patrick is an adult cyclist who just also happens to have autism. His words bear repeating.

Cycling and autism go hand-in-hand for me. We autistics love rotation, spinning. We love rhythmic activities and can do them for hours. We dislike facial contact. When I’m cycling, I’m in an autistic’s dream world. The front wheel’s spin is absorbing, soothing. I’m moving in a repetitious motion for hours releasing a lot of built-up sensory stress.

My cycling buddies – well on saddles they’re not wanting facial contact. All eyes forward; watch the road even when you’re chatting. The autistic obsession I have with talking about narrow interests at length – among cyclists it’s invisible. They’re talking about nothing but bikes and cycling, too. When I’m among fellow cyclists, everyone is acting like me for a couple of hours and I’m not the weird one.”

Keeping with the cyclofemme vibe of my blog, I wanted to interview a female cyclist with autism. I leveraged social media to track down Patrick on Facebook and asked for his assistance in finding someone willing to speak with me. It didn’t take him long to connect me with Sandy Pehl a former pro cyclist.

After interviewing Sandy, I am truly humbled that she chose this platform as her way of “coming out.” She successfully “masked” her autism from teammates her whole career. I assume if they read this interview, there will be an ‘aha moment’ and they will realize Sandy’s little quirks were merely typical autistic behaviors.

Pehl’s boys show off mom’s bling after winning the state series in points, thus ranking her #1 female in the state.

World Autism Month and Autism Awareness Month are great to get the word out and help people to understand those on the spectrum. I’m thankful to have learned years ago how to properly engage with an autistic person. I no longer run-up to an autistic friend and hug them. Nor do I force face-to-face interactions. I do my best to reduce the sensory stress and interact on their terms.

My conversation with Sandy was enlightening and it made me more respectful of what she had to overcome to compete at the pro level. From struggling with her balance to getting comfortable wearing a helmet and sunglasses, she overcame so many obstacles to race both time trials and crits.

I think we all ride for a similar reason, it brings calm and peace to our souls.

Enjoy the Ride!

6 thoughts on “Cycling Releases Sensory Stress for Autistic Riders

  1. Sandy and I have spoken about autism and cycling the last few days. I’m blown away by how she came up with and used strategies to handle the sensory load to even be at bike races. I only managed one triathlon. Even with a supportive race director letting me keep earplugs in after the swim, along with a small crew of impromptu volunteers familiar with autism assisting me, it was too much. Thank you for covering autism and cycling.


  2. It’s the sense of freedom that riding brings as well. I find it interesting how such sports can aid people with autism. Fencing is similar, I used to teach many people with autism and ADHD.

    Liked by 1 person

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