From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
EZEKIEL CZAR MARTIN SEPT. 8, 2009

Whether playing Martin Lawrence's brazen girlfriend Gina on Martin or Damon Wayans' self-assured spouse Jay on My Wife and Kids, Tisha Campbell-Martin is known for portraying bold, headstrong women. But when it came time to consider having a second child, the actress, who confidently states, "I can handle anything," seemed to have met her match. Her first child, Xen, 8, is autistic, and the fear of raising another kid with autism gave the actress an uncharacteristic feeling: "I was nervous and scared."

But she and husband Duane Martin's fears were allayed when son Ezekiel, whose name means "God's strength," arrived last September. With the baby, now 6 months old, on her lap, the actress beams as she strokes his plump cheeks. "He's a talker. He's got such a sparkle in his eyes," Tisha, 41, says of the baby, whom she calls Zeke. "This baby smiles a lot. The first time around, I didn't get to see my child smile back at me."

Indeed, smiles were few and far between when Xen was an infant. During his first year, Tisha knew "something was different" when he wasn't reaching normal babyhood milestones like smiling or making eye contact. "I read the book What to Expect the First Year, and it was really hard because my son wasn't meeting the monthly goals," she says. "I just threw the book."

Finally, when Xen was 18 months old, Tisha's fears were realized: Xen's pediatrician broke the news that he was autistic. "I was crying, 'Why is this happening to my baby?'" Tisha says. "Will he be able to hear me? Will he be able to say, 'I love you?' Will he be independent?"

Once the tears subsided, Tisha says she was on a "mission." She and Duane enlisted a team of occupational, speech and behavior therapists to work with Xen 40 hours a week. "We were told things like 'He might not talk; he might not be able to tie his own shoes,'" says Duane, 44, a former actor turned real estate developer. "I give Tisha the credit. We got closer because of Xen."

Like many autistic children, Xen developed habits called self-stimulatory behaviors. While some children rock or wring their hands, "Xen used to lick walls and public banisters," Tisha says, cringing. "That drove me crazy. I found a list of behaviors that people find socially acceptable, so I taught him to bite his nails. It ended all of that."

Over the years Xen's autism has become manageable to the point where he thrives as a third grader at his elementary school, does chores and homework and has regular play dates with his pals. Yet Tisha and Duane were still unsure about whether to try for a second child. "We waited a long time," she says. "I didn't know if I could handle two. We wanted to give Xen as much attention as possible. How do you give love to two human beings like that?"

With Zeke's smooth arrival, however, all those worries have melted away. Instead their biggest obstacles this time around have been refreshingly run-of-the-mill: "We forgot how to do a lot of stuff, like swaddling and diapers," says Duane, laughing. Xen, too, has welcomed his little brother with open arms. "Xen dotes on Zeke," she says. "The minute Xen wakes up in the morning, he runs to him."

Relieved that Zeke is exhibiting no early signs of autism, Tisha says she is savoring her baby son's early developmental stages, instead of fearing them as she did when Xen was an infant. Case in point: Nursing Zeke "is such an incredible bonding experience," she coos. "I'm enjoying every single moment."

Given her emotionally fraught first go-round at motherhood, it's a sentiment that Tisha, who is looking for a new project after wrapping her Lifetime sitcom Rita Rocks, never thought she'd utter. "Two kids? I was worried," she says. "But it's pretty easy because they make it easy."