When their daughter Natalie was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, Mike and Brittaney Crider knew that some of the plans they had for their family would 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 resource officer there (for several years.) We always wanted her to be supported in our community.”
Ever since Natalie started preschool, the district has embraced that goal, creating as many opportunities as possible for her to fully participate.
“I think I’m like every teacher who believes all students can learn,” said Carol Field, principal at Lakewood’s Jackson Intermediate. “We have a nice group of staff members here who believe similarly.”
Now Natalie, 10, and her little brother Mikie, 9, are both in third grade at Jackson, where Brittaney works as a third grade teacher.
Throughout the year, Brittaney has joked that all three of them are “in third grade together.”
But beyond seeing it as a sweet moment, she wanted to turn it into an opportunity to advocate and build on the accepting culture their district has created.
With strong support from Jackson’s administration, Brittaney, Mike, Mikie and Natalie began presenting to all Lakewood third graders, using their family’s story to talk about the importance of inclusion.
“When we can create a win-win (for all students), we want to do that,” Carol said.
Brittaney and Mike had never heard of GRIN2B until they got the results of their daughter’s genetic tests.
Natalie was 4 years old at the time. Their family had spent years trying to find answers about why their daughter experienced significant developmental delays.
With support from 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 became increasingly clear that her delays were caused by something extremely rare.
In 2016, the Criders learned that GRIN2B is the name of a gene located on the 12th chromosome, which affects the ways receptors send messages to the brain.
Natalie was born with a variance in her GRIN2B gene, causing low muscle tone, gross and fine motor delays and cognitive disabilities.
There are so few children with that 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 connect with other families. She became a founding member of the GRIN2B Foundation, meeting families from around the world whose children had similar experiences to Natalie.
As she’s grown, Natalie has done great at school, with one-on-one support from her interventionist.
A lover of marching bands, especially the Lakewood High School band, Natalie enjoys cheerleading and dance and has started riding lessons through the Pony Express.
Although she has been well known throughout the district since she was a toddler, it’s been important for Brittaney and Mike to help give her the tools to make lasting friendships.
With encouragement from Lakewood, 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. Research team members have been coaching Natalie on how to invite others to play and observing how she interacts with peers, who are also involved in the study.
“Not only is Nat learning to play but they are 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 went incredibly smoothly, Brittaney said.
The building’s staff put little bumblebee stickers around the building so Natalie would recognize her hook for her backpack, her spot in line and the right bathroom door.
They introduced adaptive physical education, music and art so Natalie could focus on some of her IEP goals.
“It’s like a family,” Brittaney said. “We are very fortunate and lucky. This is what we’ve believed in.”
The GRIN2B Foundation has a presentation that is available to 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. They are going to be her graduating class.”
Not only did the school support the idea of the presentation, but they provided coverage for Brittaney’s class so she could participate.
“It’s a family, it’s a community out here, “ Carol said. “Everyone just gets on board.”
The whole Crider family helped with the presentation which talked about DNA — the “building blocks” of our bodies. They shared information about Natalie’s genetic variance and Mikie shared some fun facts about his sister and other children supported by the GRIN2B Foundation.
One of the most touching things about the presentation was the questions from her classmates, Brittaney said.
“I thought there would be questions about GRIN2B but they were more about Natalie,” she said. “They wanted to know, ‘Does she like to dance? Does she like music?’”
“To them, she’s just Natalie,” Mike added.
The Criders are hopeful that the culture of inclusion they’ve found at Jackson will continue as Natalie moves on to middle school and beyond.
“(Lakewood has) definitely been very open minded and willing,” she said. “Our voices have definitely been heard.
Mikie speaks out
Shortly after helping with the presentation about Natalie, Mikie decided it was time to share his own story.
On World Autism Day, he and his mom created a Facebook post on her page.
“My name is Michael and I am autistic,” he wrote. “There are some things that are hard for me and also easy.”
Mikie was diagnosed with autism at age 7 and for a while struggled to process what being on the spectrum meant to him.
But over the years, with support from his family, he began to realize that both things that come easy and his challenges are part of who he is.
“It is easy for me to read. It is easy for me to answer math questions. It is easy to be humorous. It is easy to be humble. It is also pretty easy to be kind to people. It is easy to have a big heart. It is easy to care about others but not myself,” he wrote.
“It is hard for me to pay attention. It is hard for me to use my fingers on small things like a needle and thread. It is also hard for me to control my emotions. It is hard to tell people to stop when they are mean. I do not like new food,,” he wrote. “Even though I am autistic I try my best.”
Mikie loves karate and has earned a purple belt at Impact Martial Arts. He also enjoys learning tumbling, taekwondo and kickboxing.
The Criders recently received a grant from the Michael Dean Gibbs Foundation to help pay for all his martial arts classes. He’s also planning to try out a few weeks at the Licking County Family YMCA’s summer camp.
It’s exciting to see him gain confidence and try something new, Mike said.
“It’s been fun to watch him grow,” he said.
When Mikie shared his story, within hours it had more than 300 responses, including 48 supportive comments from friends and neighbors.
For Brittaney it was just another example of the love and acceptance her family has felt in their community.
“They say it takes a village and we’ve got quite the village here at Lakewood,” she said.
Some photos provided by the Crider family.