These ‘especially-abled’ twins in Kennedale are swimming in success despite challenges

Despite being born with cerebral palsy and autism, twins Jimmy, left, and Tommy Crisp focused on potential over limitations as each graduated in the top 5% of their senior class at Kennedale High School. They are now studying engineering in college
Despite being born with cerebral palsy and autism, twins Jimmy, left, and Tommy Crisp focused on potential over limitations as each graduated in the top 5% of their senior class at Kennedale High School. They are now studying engineering in college Courtesy

In a world of sink or swim, sinking has never been an option for twin brothers Tommy and Jimmy Crisp.

Faced with a double challenge from birth with each having cerebral palsy and autism, the Crisp brothers welcome any challenge, from books to flying, and have passed any test that has come their way in life.

“As my Mom put it, she ‘put me in every pool that she could, and I was able to swim in all of them,’” Jimmy said. “Admittedly, my parents having very high standards for success, especially with regards to grades, had something to do with it, but I still feel that I got a pretty good bargain when it comes to my family.”

Indeed, Kathy and her husband Greg never accepted society’s “norms” when it came to their children. They focused on potential, not limitations, potential that led them to graduate in the top 5% of their senior class of 244 at Kennedale High School this past year, Tommy eighth with a 4.40 GPA and Jimmy 12th with a 4.37.

Both joined the Kennedale band program in sixth grade. Tommy plays the euphonium and Jimmy plays trumpet and synthesizer (keyboards.) They were both members of the Kennedale High School Marching Band, one of the top-ranked in 4A in Texas, and Symphonic Band, winning a few awards along the way.

Jimmy was a member of the competing Kennedale Winter Drumline for two years. Tommy was in student council from middle through his senior year. Both were members of National Honor Society and Junior National Honor Society, as well as the Key Club, and both competed in numerous events in UIL Academics competitions.

“Even when other people have had doubts, my parents have always believed in me. This has helped me realized that I am more than my autism and led to my success,” Tommy said.

Kathy prefers to call her children “especially-abled.”

“We all have differing levels of strength, weakness, fear, courage, intelligence, determination, physical ability, gifts, needs, etc. I know that our sons are fearfully and wonderfully made,” she said. “While some ‘labeling’ became necessary in order to obtain the proper amount of support throughout school (their official diagnoses), they are who they are — the best Tommy and Jimmy ever. No other labels apply in our house.”

Beyond their school success, Tommy has worked at McDonald’s for a couple of years and has been promoted twice during that time. Both have been active members of First Baptist Church Grand Prairie youth group and youth choirs, participating in mission trips and local mission work.

They also fly planes with Challenge Air (created to change the perception of children with special needs through flying), are members of the Night of Superstars (an Academy Awards style celebration that honors special needs students).

And though it’s been a few years, having focused more on high school band, both earned a Second Degree Black Belt from Metro Karate Academy in Arlington by eighth grade.

After having attended school together from preschool through graduation in Kennedale, now the brothers are on separate campuses for the first time in their lives as freshmen at their respective colleges; though each chose a branch of the University of Texas, and some form of the same major.

Tommy is studying civil engineering at UT Arlington, and Jimmy is pursuing mechanical engineering at UT Dallas.

“While we didn’t make it a rule, I always thought they would end up going to the same college. When circumstances dictated they separate, my biggest fear was how they would handle living with someone else,” Kathy said. “They are both living on their respective campuses — part of our policy of always throwing them into the pool.“

They were put in regular classes in the Kennedale ISD, soon moving into advanced level classes. Reaching high school, very little if any support was needed. Along the way, they found their own way to communicate as they bested their speaking challenge, and now they can hold a conversation on any topic with anyone.

Currently, Jimmy is helping design a human-powered vehicle in a project sponsored by his school’s mechanical engineering society. The project is designed for both a drag race and an endurance race, he said.

“There are several tasks associated with building it, including laying out the design, actually building it, frequent tests, and a video showcasing its safety features,” he said. “All I can tell you is that it will have two wheels in the front and one in the back, and I may be driving it.”

It also didn’t take long for Tommy to prove himself at college.

“As a member of the honors college, I will be required to make a comprehensive research project when I am an upperclassman,” he said. “I also work approximately 20 hours a week at a local fast food restaurant in order to give me financial stability once I graduate.”

Kathy said the biggest challenge has come from others who succumb to “society’s perceptions.” For example, both have “stimmed” throughout life, typically flapping or humming when excited or happy, but also sometimes when stressed.

“I look at it like steam coming from a tea kettle. If it doesn’t go somewhere, the kettle will explode. They don’t do it as often now, but when they were little it was very common,” Kathy said. “So I would tell teachers to just touch them on the shoulder or quietly say their name and they would stop. And I told the guys the same. This was a signal that they needed to be quiet. Simple, but effective.”

As they did in the Kennedale ISD, the brothers are each “putting themselves out there,” as Kathy likes to say proudly, in college. Tommy has attended some concerts and has joined the Baptist Student Ministry (BSM) at UTA. Jimmy has attended events at his Honors College, the BSM, his American Society of Mechanical Engineers group, and every Friday he attends a praise and worship event with a campus group called Focus.

Along with a supportive family, the brothers have long had a large support group of neighbors, family friends, and teachers/administrators — who Kathy calls Tommy and Jimmy’s Kennedale Band of Angels — who believed in them every step of the way.

“I want people to know how hard our sons have worked to get here, but they could not have done so without the ever-growing Band of Angels. Kennedale believes in them. First Baptist Church Grand Prairie believes in them. Many family and friends believe in them,” Kathy said. “They have never known themselves to be anything but who they are. It is everyone else that has work to do.”

Dawn Ramirez was the boys’ counselor in the Kennedale ISD from seventh grade through high school. She said that while their disability could have required many additional accommodations, they only wanted to be treated the same as their peers, often setting an example for overcoming any obstacle.

And now, she said it’s exciting to see them take the next step in life, college.

“ “They are brilliant young men who will be extremely successful in life. I can’t wait to see what they will conquer next,” Ramirez said.

And as the brothers continue toward what looks like a successful life for each, Kathy reminds them of the sink-or-swim family philosophy, with a new little twist.

“I have teased them for years that they will have to build a pool house for Dad and I to live in when they build their first house,” she said, chuckling. “We can go back and forth between them. In return, I will cook for them every day.

“Our philosophy has always been to ‘throw both sons into every pool we pass. If they start to sink, we will pull them out. If they don’t, they will swim.’ Well, so far they haven’t gone under.”