SIOUX CITY | On a balmy Monday afternoon, Ryan Osborn tromped the bright green pedal-less bike he was seated on around a circle marked by orange cones on the Pier Center for Autism's front lawn.
At the top of low wooden ramps positioned along the grassy course, Ryan slightly lifted his feet up and let the bike coast under the watchful eye of Andrew Shim, chair of Briar Cliff University's Kinesiology and Human Performance Department.
"I love that. That's nice!" Shim said to Ryan after he nailed the final ramp.
Ryan, with flushed cheeks, handed his bike helmet off to mom, Ellen Osborn, before collapsing on the ground for a brief rest. The 7-year-old Sioux City boy had a decision to make: take home a red bike or a green one?
Ryan and nine other children ages 6 to 10 with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) -- who have no bike-riding experience -- are participating in a six-week research project sponsored by Strider Sports International, Inc., a leader in bicycle development.
ASD is a pervasive neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an individual's ability to communicate and interact with others. ASDs affect 1 out of every 68 children in the United States.
The children will get a free pedal-less bike made by Strider, while Shim will collect valuable data to determine if the newly designed bikes can help improve balance scores.
Strider, of Rapid City, South Dakota, developed the pedal-less bikes to assist children with special needs in transitioning to a regular two-wheel bicycle. The bikes being used in the study were assembled by staff from the Sioux City Scheels All Sports store.
The study comes on the heels of another one led by Shim two years ago at the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion. The study, which was conducted over a four-week period with 3- to 5-year-old children, found that the Strider bikes helped improve balance and functional fitness.
According to Shim, pedal-less bikes, which were originally designed for adults, have been around since the late 1700s. Thirty years after their debut, he said pedals were added to bicycles.
The bikes used by the children participating in the study at the Pier Center for Austism are bigger than the ones used in Shim's first study at USD.
"Honestly, the point of the study is for these kids to learn how to ride a bike, and then along the way we pick up some variables that hopefully we can use to do some prediction-type measurements and to see if the way that we've constructed them does actually aid in improving balance scores," he said.
"We also have other surveys for the parents to look at quality of life outlooks to see how the kids are doing post-exercise bike session and on off days."
Average children improve their stability scores within a period of three weeks if they practice with a pedal-less bike three times a week for 20 minutes or more, Shim has found.
Over a period of six weeks, he thinks children with delayed motor skills could experience positive changes in their central nervous system, the place in the brain where sensory components to produce complex motor activities, such as riding a bike, are stored.
Deanna Rodriguez, of Sioux City, said she hopes the study will improve her daughter Giavanna's balance and awkward gait.
The first session was scary for the happy-go-lucky 6-year-old who loves her iPad but doesn't like to wear bows in hair, let alone a bicycle helmet on her head.
"The rough part the first day was putting the helmet on. She has sensory issues with that," Rodriguez said.
After taking a lap around the course on a green bike, Rodriguez led her daughter to an upstairs room, where Emily Kay, a Briar Cliff University senior majoring in kinesiology and human performance, was waiting to record her progress on a computerized balance plate.
A shoeless Giavanna stood still on the plate facing Kay for 10 seconds while the device captured her measurements. Then Kay asked her to lean forward, backward and to each of her sides.
"I've never seen anything like this. I've actually learned a lot," Kay, of Warner, South Dakota, said of the study. "I think it's a huge opportunity for me to excel forward and give people new ideas."
While Giavanna decided one lap around the course was enough for her, Ryan buckled his helmet and set out on his second. After finishing that lap, Ryan chose the color of his bike.
"I like the red one, but without pedals," he said.
Shim assured him his request would be granted.