This is Afea's story.
When Afea Tucker gave birth to her son Amir, she was 19 years old. Her first child appeared to be a happy and healthy baby boy; that was until his grandmother started to notice signs that little Amir was not developing like her seven children were at 18 months old.
"My mom was the first to say, 'Afea, I'm worried about Amir,'" she remembers. "He wasn't responding to his name, looking at us, or lifting his head."
It wasn't until his speech regression that she too began to realize that something was wrong. "The red flag for sure was when he went into a nonverbal state and would no longer speak. Then one day he unlocked the door and ran away without saying a word. That's when I began the process of understanding more about my son's learning abilities and what I could do to make his life comfortable," Afea openly shares about her experience.
With her very supportive mother by her side, the mother-daughter duo began to look into resources that could help them with Amir's growth and development. Looking for answers, Afea began asking her doctors questions that could help her understand why her young son was not responding like most children his age.
"Finding out that he could hear just fine was confirmation that something unique was going on," she shared after having his hearing tested. With no clue what could be wrong, Afea needed answers, and Amir's pediatrician gave Afea a list of agencies to consider contacting for a developmental evaluation.
Wasting no time, after seeing one of the referred early childhood development agencies, Amir was evaluated and deemed eligible for speech and occupational therapy, yet he was never diagnosed with anything.
It never dawned on Afea that her son could possibly have autism. "To my knowledge, he had a developmental delay, that's all," Afea calls to mind. "I didn't even know what autism really was. The only thing that I could equate to that was the depiction of Rain Man because autism wasn't something that I learned about in school. I was never aware or informed about what it meant to have autism but professionals around us had a clue but said nothing."
It wasn't until Amir was three years old when a developmental doctor gave Afea the diagnosis that Amir had autism.
Like a piece to the puzzle, everything made more sense. Finally, with a diagnosis, the young mother tapped into her mama bear mindset that sent her on a mission to discover more about her son's condition. From reading books to tireless searching on Google, Afea began researching the ins and outs of autism. She also sought guidance from therapists, professionals, and specialists to get more answers. All this while being a single mom holding down a full-time job to care for her young son.
"I also attended parent support group meetings, but nothing I researched or read would prepare me for the life ahead of us," Afea recalls of the clarifying moment of her life.
In need of support, Afea signed up to participate with the Autism Speaks Walk so that she could connect with and learn from other people who were raising children with autism. "I was pleasantly surprised to meet and walk with families that were filled with positivity and support. It made me feel like I was not going through this alone. I tried to make it out every year."
Couresty of Afea Tucker
After attending several Autism Walks, she knew that she wanted to do more, especially for teens turning to adults. While holding down a demanding position as a K-8 teacher by day and hustling as a strategic communications consultant at night, for the love of her son, she founded the non-profit organization Au-Some Lives Inc., which offers social support for families with children, teens, and young adults living with autism.
"Our mission is to assist and empower autistic families by providing resources, social support, and opportunities to connect local families so that they can share experiences, information, and concerns about the autistic community," Afea proudly declares about the organization she created after feeling there were not enough support outlets for parents to share in their knowledge and experiences. "My son is 17 now, but not too long ago, people were not as informed or aware as they can be today. There were not many schools that catered to the needs of children with autism."
After being overwhelmed with calls from Amir's teachers, "at least three times a day," Afea found herself quitting her job and starting her PR agency while he was in school so she could dedicate her time to her son after school.
"I owe it to my son that I am a competitive, experienced, and skilled entrepreneur because working from home allowed me to challenge myself to be available for both my son and my clients, and arrange meetings that worked perfectly around my son's schedule and I did successfully."
Raising Amir hasn't been easy for Afea. Some days are more challenging than others, but they make the best out of their lives. "I learned to celebrate the milestones, every success, and moments of growth. He has accomplished more than some 'specialists' thought he'd ever achieved," Afea gleams with pure delight.
Despite how challenging it may be for some people with autism to socially interact and communicate, many enjoy companionship and having fun with their peers, and it all starts with goals. Afea sees this with Amir.
"One of the goals I listed for Amir was to tell me how his day went. Every day after school I asked him, 'Amir how was your day?' And after a year, he responded with the simple word 'good.' That one-word response was a huge accomplishment. Now we have moved past 'good' to what classes he had and [what he] ate for lunch. He started talking girls, which I wasn't prepared for, but nevertheless," she laughs.
Couresty of Afea Tucker
"Sky's the limit for Amir and I won't let anyone try to put a cap on what they think my son will be able to do based on a study or something they read in a textbook. You can't say everyone is different and then try to define and treat them all the same. I challenged the things I didn't believe in or weren't appropriate for my son."
Afea advises parents:
"There is no time for pity. Let your child know that they may be different but that they are loved. Children with autism need empathy, respect, and awareness."
As for her advice to parents seeking help, Afea wants to remind them: "You are not alone and there are some good people and organizations out there that want to help and genuinely support. Parent support groups are great places because you connect with people who have actually experienced parenting or caring for someone on the spectrum."
Moreover, Afea wants parents to feel comfortable taking their children out to explore. "Don't live in fear of other people's opinion. An opinion is just that, an opinion, not a fact. Try new things and let life flow. You never know when you'll have a breakthrough, so be patient."
"Amir's diagnosis made me strong, it made me an advocate because I literally had to be his voice for years. I also became an intensive skilled researcher because I spent hours looking into doctors, therapies, schools, research studies. Being a parent of a child with autism has built my character. I've become a bit more sensitive and compassionate."
To follow Afea and Amir's journey, check out her Instagram @its_ah_feeah.