A young man smiles with his arm around his mom. He is wearing a blue striped t-shirt and she wears a blouse with a green floral pattern. They are standing outside.
A collage of two pictures. One shows two young men smiling with their arms crossed and standing back to back. One wears a green blazer and the other wears a green dress shirt. The other photo shows a smiling young man in kahkis and a green polo shirt. He wears rubber gloves and holds cleaning supplies while standing in a restaurant.

Against the Odds

Malachi Lewis-Byrd didn’t speak until he was four. Now, he uses his voice and his story to inspire others.

“Because I’m a winner,” Malachi Lewis-Byrd proudly says of why he bought himself of trophy as a high school graduation gift.  

At 21, Lewis-Byrd has been through his share of challenges. He has autism and didn’t speak until age 4. Now, he’s a recent graduate from the Pathways program, has a job at a restaurant, and is an honorary spokesperson for the national organization, Autism Speaks.  

Lewis-Byrd was born on Nov. 11, 2001. His birthday is Veterans Day, which is fitting because his mom, Nonnie, is a United States Army veteran. When he was only 18 months old, Nonnie was sent to Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “When I got home from deployment, I noticed Malachi regressed,” she said. “I talked to his doctor. She said he was having separation issues, and I was a bad mother for leaving him.”  

A year later, Lewis-Byrd’s daycare provider, who was also a nurse, suggested he might have autism. A doctor at Cincinnati Children’s confirmed the diagnosis, and they began occupational, physical and speech therapy. After that, Nonnie left her full-time active military duty in the Army National Guard for reserve status so she could dedicate more time to her son.  

a collage of three pictures of malachi. The first shows him wearing a cap and gown while holding a diploma and hugging a woman. The second shows him and his brother standing in front of a house and smiling. The third shows him wearing a Cincinnati Reds baseball hat and sitting in a dugout.

At the time of his diagnosis, autism awareness was a relatively new concept. Even some of their family dismissed it and said nothing was wrong. “People were apprehensive and didn’t really know how to help. And there was a lot of undercover bias because we are a family of color,” Nonnie said. “It was hard to get resources, but I looked at it like, how do we get Malachi to live the best life that he can?” 

When he started school, Lewis-Byrd says he remembers being sad because people were mean and bullying him in the classroom. That all changed when the family moved to the Indian Hill school district in 2006. It’s where he says he learned to “smile and be happy.” 

“They created a program with everything he needed,” Nonnie said. “In those years at Indian Hill, Malachi just blossomed and that’s when his speech started to develop.” He also watched a lot of movies and television shows to understand people’s body language and social situations.  

“Malachi is an exceptional young person,” said Robert Long, who was Lewis-Byrd’s transition consultant in his teenage years. “As he’s grown, his self-esteem and self-confidence have soared. The challenges Malachi faced have never stopped him from living the life he wants.” 

As he got older, Lewis-Byrd and his mom became more involved with Autism Speaks. In 2023, their story was part of a national Be Kind campaign that also featured celebrities like Jack Black. People from all over the world reached out after hearing their story.  

He also thrived in the Pathways to Employment vocational program at the Hamilton County Educational Service Center. He learned about budgeting, explored different jobs, and practiced other independence and life skills. “Malachi is a very hard worker. He loves working with others and is very social,” said Pathways instructor Leah Sears.  

He excels at his job at Luigi’s in Mason, where he cleans the restaurant and wants to keep working. Lewis-Byrd also makes time for his hobbies—going to parks, shopping at Trader’s World, collecting fun socks—and spending time with his girlfriend, Joanie.  

“It’s been surreal watching Malachi go from being a timid child who was bullied and didn’t speak to now going out and just talking to everybody,” Nonnie said. “He just cannonballs into life.” 

 

Photos by Lisa Danford, Michael Ginn, Amy Hayden, and provided.  

A young man wearing sneakers, black jeans, and a red blazer smiles while sitting on a colorful painted staircase.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of My Life magazine.