CU Boulder students use engineering skills to create bike for 13-year-old girl with autism

BOULDER, Colo – A group of University of Colorado engineering students came together to change the life of a girl diagnosed with autism.

The way they did that was by creating the perfect gift to give her during the holidays.

Sarah Marshall is 13-years-old and her mother, Julie Marshall, said she is like most teenagers.

“Music is the key to Sarah,” Julie Marshall said. “Something about music just really speaks to her and calms her.”

Sarah was diagnosed with autism at an early age.

“She is on the severe end of autism,” Julie said. “She needs total help with daily living skills. She can’t read, and she can’t write.”

Sarah sits at home, getting lost in her music. She carries a little CD stereo player around her house while listening to her favorite music.

“I think she’s listening to Peanuts Christmas carol,” Julie said while sitting in her living room downstairs.

Sarah isn’t like most teenagers when it comes to her music taste.

“She loves jazz, she loves Mozart,” Julie said.

Like everyone who listens to their favorite music, Sarah loves to dance to it.

“Sarah, like a lot of her friends who have autism, they have all this energy and they just want to move,” Julie said.

Sarah’s family hung a swing set in one of their rooms in order for Sarah to use it; Julie said she never wants to get off that swing.

“Children with autism respond to a lot of movement, this swing helps,” Julie said. “We bought it on an autism therapy website. We’ve had it for five years.”

However, Julie has found the perfect therapy for Sarah – movement and music.

“They say Mozart is good for your mind – well here’s a good example of that,” Julie said.

Sarah tends to play the piano in their living room while listening to Mozart. The whole time she is playing the piano, she is jumping up and down on a Pilates ball.

“The movement and music work together,” Julie said. “There’s something profound about that. But when she does that, she’s able to focus more and communicate better.”

Sarah can play the piano, and she can swing from her living room ceiling, but there's something she can’t do like other kids.

“I have really fond memories of family bike rides growing up,” Julie said. “Sarah can’t join us on those type of rides everyone has. People don’t realize that families like us can’t partake in stuff like that.”

That’s where the CU engineering students come in.

A group of engineering students created a bike specifically for Sarah. It’s a two-seater bike so that Sarah’s mother or someone else can ride with her. However, there’s more to the bike that makes it functional for Sarah.

“The bike plays her favorite songs when she peddles to encourage her to keep peddling and using her fine motor skills,” said Lauren Kercheval, one of the students who created the bike.

The bike combines two of Sarah’s loves – music and movement.

Sarah was too shy and skeptical to get on the bike when she first saw it, but will be able to enjoy what other kids may take for granted.

“It’s the perfect gift,” Julie said. “It’s just amazing that they built this. We looked up adaptive bikes and those cost $6,000. This is just amazing cause it was built specifically for Sarah’s needs. We couldn't be more grateful.”

The group of students submitted this invention against 200 different schools nationwide in the Fall 2017 Design Expo. The group won first place for the “People’s Choice Award.”

Julie said she and Sarah plan on joining a bike club.

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