By Zach Dunkin
The ritual of learning how to ride a bike has long been a rite of passage for American youths. A coming-of-age introduction to a new world of freewheeling fun and independence. For children with disabilities, however, the act of riding a bike is a huge, sometimes impossible, challenge.
Until recently, 12-year-old Ethan Tackett was robbed of that rite of passage. But thanks to a program called Amtryke, Ethan can now frequently be seen cruising up and down the sidewalks and streets of his northeast Fishers neighborhood sidewalks on his 14-speed incumbent tricycle.
“The tryke is one of the few things he has ever owned where he has spontaneously come up to me and tells me he wants to ride it,” Ethan’s father, Bill Tackett, said. “And, for once, he gets to be a kid.”
Ethan is autistic. And like most kids with autism, he has no sense of balance. He is able to pilot the tryke by an under-seat steering system and stop it with handbrakes.
The Amtryke program is operated by National AMBUCS, a nonprofit charity dedicated to creating mobility and independence for people of all ages with disabilities. Through public donations and fundraisers, tryke hopefuls on the AMBUCS wish list receive a vehicle after the purchase price goal is reached. A tryke like Ethan’s costs more than $1,000. Family and friends donated enough money to the program to purchase the tryke for him.
Perhaps an unconventional means of therapy, riding the tryke has been proven to provide positive results. Both physical and occupational therapists acknowledge the tryke’s therapeutic benefits, citing improved motor skills, strength development and self-esteem.
“Along with social benefits, Amtryke tricycles have also shown great therapeutic benefits,” Amtryke grants and wish list coordinator Jessica Wall said. “In our surveys, parents reported they saw improvement in strength to their children’s legs 82.6 percent of the time, while 65 percent reported improvement in arm strength and 88 percent in trunk strength.”
Ethan’s family has seen firsthand how the new vehicle has helped him develop.
“We get to work with him on understanding how to watch out for pedestrians and cars and to stop at a stop sign,” Bill Tackett said. “Plus, it’s not like he comes up and says, ‘Hey, dad, I want to ride the tyrke.’ At first, he’d come up to me, rub against me and go, ‘Tryke.’ Then later we progressed to, ‘Ride the tryke.’ It’s verbal progress, which is valuable.”
Bill and Shelly Tackett suspected Ethan was autistic by the time he was 15 months old.
“He never made the progress milestones … he didn’t start crawling … didn’t start speaking,” Bill said. “Never made eye contact. Never cried. He’s really been in his own little world pretty much since he was born.”
Doctors initially told the Tacketts not to worry; boys typically developed slower than girls. Then one day Bill was channel surfing and stumbled across a program on autism. As he watched, he turned to Shelly and said, “You realize they are talking about Ethan, right?” After the Tacketts had moved from California to Indiana in 2005, they had Ethan diagnosed.
Unlike with some more severe cases of autism, Ethan is capable of functioning in a normal school environment. In an Ohio State study program of autistic children, he was evaluated to have a genius IQ.
Ethan attends Sand Creek Intermediate School, where his father says he regularly fails tests because he doesn’t comprehend or like them, but is a whiz in math.
“He can take a work problem, look at it at a glance and write down the answer,” Bill said. “But he gets in trouble because he doesn’t show his work. He just knows the answer.”
When people hear the Tacketts have a son who is autistic, Bill said some of them say, “I’m sorry.” But they aren’t.
“He’s a good kid,” said Bill. “We have our challenges, but overall we are thankful to have Ethan. As independent as he can be, he doesn’t require attention 24/7. My wife Shelly has always said that we have exactly what we can handle. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
How you can help
AMBUCS has provided more than 30,000 Amtrykes to people with disabilities. Tax-deductible donations can be made for a specific child or to the fund in general. There are currently 10 Indiana children among those on the waiting list, including two from Fishers. Jonah, 6, has Williams syndrome, and Kaitlin, 4, has cerebral palsy.
To donate to Jonah, Kaitlin or any other specific individual, visit ambucs.org/riders/wish-list/wish-list-riders and search for their name and location.