What My Autistic Son’s Fear of Cycling Taught Me about Guilt and Blame

We have the power to create and conquer fear

Two men standing in front of a bicycle
On the day Diego conquered his fear

Two summers ago, my husband and I caused Diego, my 26-year-old autistic son, to fear biking. It didn’t take much, which shows that you can never know who or what might turn something you actually like into something you dread.

We were in Vermont at a friend’s home and decided, on our last morning there, to go on a bike ride. Funny how all bad things happen on the last day, the last ride, last run, last time.

The road was hilly and Diego doesn’t like to go fast, which is fine. I don’t much like speed either. But he was going so slow it wasn’t really biking.

On the first downhill, he squeezed the brakes like mad and placed his feet on the ground. We got off the bikes and started walking.

“C’mon Diego. You know how to brake. Keep going.” Oh my lord. We cajoled, reasoned, tried creating some distance so he’d want to catch up. I even made him feel bad by saying he should’ve stayed home.

Anyhow, we barely biked half a mile, which would take ten minutes to walk but took us twice that to bike-walk.

Just when we were to turn into the driveway, my husband, Cesar, said, “Hey, Diego, let me try your bike.” Surprise, surprise: the brakes didn’t work. We asked Diego if he wanted to go out again with a good bike but he was done. Done for the day, done for the summer, done forever.

Well, not really. The following summer we got him to ride, reluctantly, on a bike path twice. But he went only because he has a hard time saying no and always wants to please. Although nothing went wrong, he didn’t much enjoy it.

Ugh, I felt awful, especially because Diego never complained or blamed me for his biking trauma. It’s not that he decided not to do so out of magnanimity. He’s just incapable of ascribing guilt or blame, at least to people he loves, and he loves most people.

How unlike us “normal” humans, who are keen to blame those we love most (our parents in particular) for our hangups.

Here’s the happy news: the damage was reversed recently when we biked in a perfectly flat South Carolina island with flawless bike paths from which you can spot alligators.

Diego was really nervous as we were getting ready to go, his eyes wide open and unblinking as they get when he’s anxious. “I don’t wanna crash like Gabriele in 2011.” (Gabriele’s his dad’s cousin in Italy who had a pretty serious bike accident. Diego has a perfect memory for the year any event happened. It’s kind of a superpower.)

“You won’t crash. We’ll go slow and it’s all flat.”

We started riding, soooo slowly. Then Diego began pedaling a bit over walking pace, then jogging pace, runner pace, until we were riding at a leisurely vacationer pace.

Soon enough Diego spotted the storks. Not sure if they were really storks but they looked like storks.

“Storks of The Rescuers. Summon the storks!” Diego said, referring to the Disney movie and to Aquaman, who summons sea creatures.

Then he saw a few crows, aka ravens:

“Ravens of Snow White.

And when we got to the beach, he beheld a third bird species:

“Pelicans of Finding Nemo.”

By then, I was certain Diego’s fear of biking was a thing of the past. Take a look at this clip and tell me if you don’t agree:

We were almost back at our rental place when (woohoo!) we spotted two alligators in a pond. We stopped and Diego asked me to take a picture, which is when I realized my cell phone was missing.

But that’s a whole other story. Let me just say that, had I not been able to recover it, losing my phone would’ve been a bargain price to pay for Diego conquering his fear of biking.

Share Article