Clovis East crowned Kishawn Davis and Taylor Solley as Homecoming King and Queen on Friday night. Kishawn shared his crown with Affion Smith and was met with joyful cheers from the crowd.
When Affion Smith was celebrated by his peers as Clovis East’s athlete of the week for scoring four goals during a Clovis United soccer match, it was an emotional moment for his mother, Cynthia Fuller.
“Affion has never had friends; he’s always been a loner,” Fuller said of her son, who was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder and autistic behaviors when he was 3 years old. “People always have picked on him. They made fun of the way he talks.”
So it was an even bigger surprise when Fuller found out her son — whom she had home-schooled for years after he was bullied in another school district — had been nominated for homecoming king.
“I just can’t believe this,” she said tearfully over the phone as she relayed the news. “It’s amazing.”
In just two short months, life has changed dramatically for 18-year-old Affion, who decided he wanted to give school another try — this time, in Clovis Unified.
His teachers, special education staff and even the family’s entire neighborhood has welcomed Affion with open arms, making a world of difference for a teenager who sometimes asks his mom, “Why was I born this way?”
“We noticed he wasn’t behaving like a typical baby,” Fuller said of Affion. “He was always very upset. At six months he got upset and head butted me, making my nose bleed.”
Fuller is a single mother — by choice — of four kids. When Affion was a toddler, Fuller’s mother, Jeanette Crawford, took care of him while Fuller worked and attended nursing school.
“He would get very upset when I would pick him up; he didn’t want to leave grandma’s house,” she recalled, telling stories about his outbursts.
At age 3, Affion was diagnosed with PDDNOS, Pervasive Developmental Disorder - non specified, Fuller said.
“Although that diagnosis is not on the autism spectrum, his behaviors are on the autism spectrum,” she explained. “He used to do a lot of jumping and hand flapping; he was nonverbal.”
Through Fresno County’s Families First agency (now called Uplift Family Services), Affion went through therapy to treat his behaviors, Fuller said, and eventually went to preschool and started speaking at the age of 6.
“His preschool experience was great, but from there it just went downhill,” she said.
The family moved from West Fresno into Central Unified School District with good intentions.
“I was going to do whatever I had to do. I wanted to get him the best education we could, with him having special needs,” Fuller said. “His first IEP (individualized education program) was great. The teacher was really good and worked with Affion. But we moved and they moved him to another school. It was horrible.”
The school was teaching him more life skills — which Fuller instilled in him at home anyway — instead of educational material, Fuller said.
“I wanted him to learn how to read. He’s 18 and doesn’t know how to read,” she said. “ Affion can cook, he can clean, he washes his own clothes. He’s been doing that since forever, because I teach him that. Yes, you’re on the autism spectrum, but you’re going to get treated the same as all my children.”
During his freshman year of high school, Affion was physically assaulted by another student in the special education program, Fuller said, and she felt that the teachers and administrators not only tried to dismiss the gravity of the incident, but punished Affion for it by moving him into a lower-functioning class.
“Every time I would go to an IEP meeting at Central, I sat on one side of the table and they all sat on the other side. I always felt like it was me against them,” Fuller said. “I felt like Central saw me as a single black mom. I don’t want to pull the race card, but they used to ask me if I got food stamps and welfare. They were stereotyping me. I had to tell them, I have a college degree; I’m a nurse.’”
Fuller had had enough. She withdrew her son from school and, with the help of her mother, committed to homeschooling him.
A fresh start
This year, Fuller tried to register Affion for an adult transition program for people with special needs, but, because he was still 17, he had one more year of school before he could be enrolled.
“He said, ‘Mom, I will go back to school. I’m going to be a senior, it’s my last year, so I’ll do it,’” Fuller recalled. “Since he’s been in Clovis, there has been a lot of positive things going on for him.”
Special education teacher Nicole Olivarez has been teaching Affion how to read, Fuller said, and the district has been very welcoming.
“They just see me as an individual and Affion as an individual,” Fuller said. “I feel like it’s a great team effort.”
Even Affion’s experience on the Timberwolves’ Clovis United soccer team has shown Fuller that the Wolfpack is true to its name.
“The softball team came out there and cheered the team on at their game,” she explained. “I love the way that the school supports not just the special needs students, but everyone. They work great as a team.”
Coach Cindy Contreras, who also teaches 7th grade English and history at Reyburn Intermediate, said Affion is a leader on the team, both for the special education and general education student-athletes.
“He enjoys himself. He enjoys all of the other kids,” she said. “He’s always pumping them up, letting them know we’re a family, we’re the pack, we work together.”
Affion watches soccer on television and has come up with his own plays, calling Contreras aside before practice to draw plays on a piece of paper using Xs and Os.
He’s the leading scorer in Clovis United soccer league, averaging four goals per game.
“He has the best, most positive outlook and personality,” Contreras said, sharing that Affion asks at each game to be introduced to the principal of the host school to personally shake their hand and thank them for welcoming his team to their campus.
“I hope he wins homecoming king,” Contreras said. “My heart is just bursting. I will be there bawling, just like his mom.”
That moment would put the cherry on top of Affion’s ice cream sundae of a senior year.
“He’s excited to go to grad night, he’s excited to graduate, he’s excited for prom,” Fuller said. “He’s excited because he’s part of a group now. It makes me cry because I’m so happy to see the changes, the progression he’s going through.”
Fuller moved her family to a new housing development in Clovis in July 2015 and wished she would’ve done it sooner.
“Our neighbors are very supportive of him,” she said. “They all go to his games; they all came to his birthday party. People are starting to gravitate to him and he’s starting to understand, ‘I am awesome, there are people who are nice to me, people do like me.”
Affion’s grandmother summed it up: “It’s really a village raising him.”