When their daughter Natalie was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, Mike and Brittaney Crider knew some of their plans for their family were about to change.
But they never questioned that she would be part of the Lakewood school system.
“I went to Lakewood, I teach there,” Brittaney said. “Mike was the school’s resource officer there (for several years). We always wanted her to be supported in our community.”
Ever since Natalie entered preschool, the district has been committed to this goal, providing her with as many opportunities as possible to fully participate.
“I think I’m like any teacher who believes all students can learn,” said Carol Field, principal of Lakewood’s Jackson Intermediate. “We have a nice group of employees here who think along similar lines.”
Now Natalie, 10, and her little brother Mikie, 9, are both in third grade in Jackson, where Brittaney works as a third grade teacher.
Brittaney has joked all year that all three are “in third grade together.”
But aside from seeing it as a sweet moment, she wanted to turn it into an opportunity to encourage and build on the culture of acceptance that her district has created.
With the support of Jackson’s administration, Brittaney, Mike, Mikie and Natalie began making presentations to all of Lakewood’s third graders, using their family’s story to speak about the importance of inclusion.
“If we can create a win-win situation (for all students), then we want to do that,” Carol said.
Brittaney and Mike had never heard of GRIN2B until they received the results of their daughter’s genetic testing.
Natalie was 4 years old at the time. Her family had been trying for years to find answers as to why their daughter had significant developmental delays.
With the support of the Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities’ early intervention program and countless hours of therapy, Natalie had learned to eat, walk and communicate.
But it was becoming increasingly clear that their delays were being caused by something extremely rare.
In 2016, the Criders learned that GRIN2B is the name of a gene, located on the 12th chromosome, that affects the way receptors send messages to the brain.
Natalie was born with an abnormality in her GRIN2B gene, resulting in low muscle tone, gross and fine motor delays, and cognitive disabilities.
There are so few children with this variation that Natalie’s diagnosis didn’t even have a name until 2018, when it became GRIN2B Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder.
Brittaney was determined to find out more and network with other families. She became a founding member of the GRIN2B Foundation and met families from around the world whose children had similar experiences as Natalie.
Growing up, Natalie did great in school, with individual support from her interventionist.
A lover of marching bands, particularly the Lakewood High School band, Natalie enjoys cheerleading and dancing and has started riding lessons on the Pony Express.
Though she’s been well known throughout the district since she was a child, it was important to Brittaney and Mike to help her form lasting friendships.
With Lakewood’s encouragement, they enrolled Natalie in the Focus on Learning, Interaction, and Play (FLIP) at Recess project through the Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology.
The interventions used in FLIP are designed to help students with disabilities develop social skills. Members of the research team coached Natalie on how to invite others to play and observed how she interacted with peers who were also involved in the study.
“Not only are Nat learning to play, but they are also teaching other kids to play with Natalie,” Brittaney said.
“It felt like the right time”
After several great years at Hebron Elementary, Natalie’s transition to Jackson Intermediate was incredibly smooth, Brittaney said.
The building staff put small bumblebee stickers around the building so Natalie would recognize her hook for her backpack, her spot in line, and the correct bathroom door.
They introduced adaptive physical education classes, music and arts to allow Natalie to focus on some of her IEP goals.
“It’s like family,” Brittaney said. “We are very happy and lucky. We believed in that.”
The GRIN2B Foundation has a presentation that can be shared with schools, and Brittaney reached out to Carol and asked if her family could share it with Lakewood’s third graders.
“It felt like the right time,” she said. “These are Natalie’s people. You will be her senior class.”
In addition to supporting the idea of the presentation, the school arranged for coverage of Brittaney’s class so that she could attend.
“It’s a family, it’s a community out here,” Carol said. “Everybody just get in.”
The whole Crider family helped with the presentation, which was about DNA – the “building blocks” of our bodies. They exchanged information about Natalie’s genetic variability and Mikie shared some fun facts about his sister and other children who are supported by the GRIN2B Foundation.
One of the most touching things about the presentation was the questions her classmates asked, Brittaney said.
“I thought there were questions about GRIN2B, but it was more about Natalie,” she said. “They wanted to know, ‘Does she like to dance? Does she like music?’”
“To her, she’s just Natalie,” Mike added.
The Criders hope the culture of inclusion they found in Jackson will continue as Natalie progresses through middle school and beyond.
“[Lakewood was]definitely very open-minded and willing,” she said. “Our voices were definitely heard.
Mike speaks out
Shortly after helping present Natalie, Mikie decided it was time to tell his own story.
On World Autism Day, he and his mother created a Facebook post on their page.
“My name is Michael and I am autistic,” he wrote. “There are things that are difficult for me and also easy.”
Mikie was diagnosed with autism at the age of 7 and struggled for a while to process what being on the spectrum meant to him.
But over the years, with the support of his family, he began to see that both the easy things and his challenges are part of who he is.
“Reading is easy for me. I find it easy to answer math questions. It’s easy to be humorous. It’s easy to be humble. It’s also pretty easy to be kind to people. It’s easy to have a big heart. It’s easy to care for others but not for myself,” he wrote.
“It’s hard for me to pay attention to that. I have a hard time using my fingers on small things like a needle and thread. I also find it difficult to control my emotions. It’s hard to tell people to stop when they’re being mean. I don’t like new food,” he wrote. “Even though I’m autistic, I’m trying my best.”
Mikie loves karate and has earned a purple belt in Impact Martial Arts. He also enjoys learning tumbling, taekwondo and kickboxing.
The Criders recently received a grant from the Michael Dean Gibbs Foundation to pay for all of his martial arts classes. He also plans to try out a few weeks at the Licking County family’s YMCA summer camp.
It’s exciting to see him gain confidence and try something new, Mike said.
“It was fun watching him grow,” he said.
When Mikie shared his story, within hours there were more than 300 replies, including 48 supportive comments from friends and neighbors.
For Brittaney, it was just another example of the love and acceptance her family feels in their community.
“They say it takes a whole village, and we have a whole village here in Lakewood,” she said.