Perhaps because of the stigma we are up against and how misunderstood we know we are, many in the autism spectrum community feel as though the entertainment industry has historically mis- and under-represented us. The autistic character of Raymond Babbitt from the popular Oscar-winning movie Rain Man has been acknowledged by many non-autistic individuals as being a primary source of their knowledge of autism, and yet, many autistics including me insist that he does not represent us. Many of the fans of the TV Series The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon have speculated whether Sheldon Cooper may be autistic, and autistic people I have heard from feel that he is, though he was never revealed as such on the show because the creators of the character willed it that way. As for Dr. Shawn Murphy, the autistic main character on the TV series The Good Doctor, a panel of autistic adults assembled by Autism Ontario who reviewed the show commented that actor Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of Dr. Murphy came across as being a composite of his previous neurodivergent and neurotypical portrayals and that “we need people on the spectrum to play people on the spectrum.”
Raymond Babbitt, Sheldon Cooper, and Dr. Shawn Murphy have arguably been the most prominent figures in the conversation around autistic screen characters in recent years. All three are fictional, all are played by non-autistic actors, and all three are men. Finally, the tide is beginning to turn.
Meet Kaelynn Partlow, star of the hit Netflix docuseries Love on the Spectrum, an autistic woman who plays the part of her genuine, true self. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Partlow and very quickly came to understand why the producers of Love on the Spectrum wanted her on the show. Her unique personality attributes, vulnerabilities, openness, and intelligence shine through on this beautiful, heart-warming reality series about autistic men and women who dive into the unpredictable world of dating, love, and romance, calling out society’s misconceptions about them and how they want to live. And the show is resonating: three seasons to date, an 8.2 out of 10 IMDb rating, and 3 primetime Emmy awards including Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program.
No fictional characters, only real people. No neurotypical actors pretending to be neurodivergent. Autistic individuals being who they are while pushing the envelope with respect to how non-autistic individuals would likely expect them to conduct themselves. It’s a truly wonderful thing to behold, and Partlow helps make it happen.
The stigma hanging over autistic and neurodivergent individuals in general stems from societal expectations around socialization, communication, and behavior which were not established with us in mind. As such, revealing one’s authentic autistic self is, in my view, an act of uncommon courage and a success story in itself. Partlow (and her Love on the Spectrum co-stars) has elevated the virtue of unmasking autism to a whole new level, living her truth as publicly as one possibly could. In doing so, she is both raising awareness and helping to cultivate greater acceptance of autism on a global scale. She uses her speaking engagements and social media platform to share who she is, educate the public about autism and neurodiversity, and discuss what it can be like to live with autism from the point of view of somebody who actually walks in these shoes. Her TikTok page has garnered more than 10 million likes and 380,000 followers as of this writing.
Kaelynn Partlow’s success story does not end here. As a high school student at a non-profit autism services organization in South Carolina called the Project Hope Foundation, she discovered her passion for working with kids, and as a therapist there, helps autistic kids develop self-acceptance, communication, and life skills. Project Hope positions her for success by matching her with kids who exhibit skills and challenges that are similar to her own. When that kind of synergy exists between an autistic therapist and her autistic clientele, great things happen. Partlow’s overarching philosophy with respect to her therapy work: “Lead with your humanity when providing human services.”
Many autistic self-advocates including me, particularly those of us who have had to endure challenging if not traumatic behavioral therapy experiences, frequently cite the need for greater communication and understanding between the clinical and neurodiversity communities. It’s refreshing to know that this is standard operating procedure at Project Hope, and Partlow is central to this effort. She teaches Project Hope’s therapists about what autism is, drawing from her own lived experiences as an autistic, as it should be.
Partlow’s efforts toward her colleagues are noteworthy in that knowledge of autism is essential if clinicians are to work effectively with their autistic clients. Other autistics I have come to know, as well as myself, know this to be true based on our own clinical experiences. If a thorough understanding of autism is not there, then more harm is done than good. Partlow helps the Project Hope therapists build the relevant skills, screens the materials used to train new hires, and the written feedback she provides is incorporated into the organization’s training program.
All too often, autistic individuals struggle to compensate for their challenges, in part because the accommodations and supports we need in order to be at our best are not always there. Partlow found a way to address this issue by leveraging her dog training skills while training Finnegan, her black Labrador, to be her own service dog.
Finn, as he is often called, does what Partlow needs him to do for her. He is a source of stability in her life. He assists her in ways that help her cope with executive functioning challenges, including organization and time management, by retrieving certain items on command, responding to alarms, and incentivizing her to get out and do things with him which she otherwise would not do. Furthermore, Finn has received training in crowd buffering, which helps provide Partlow with personal space in congested environments. This training protects her from sensory overload, a vulnerability she would otherwise have. What a dog, and what an impressive accomplishment by his trainer and owner!
Kaelynn Partlow’s story is truly inspirational. Her story is a narrative of exceptional achievement in the face of challenge and adversity. My greatest hope for Kaelynn is that her therapy and teaching efforts continue to increase awareness, understanding, and acceptance of autism in society and inspire more success stories among those with whom she works; very realistic goals, considering what she has already accomplished.
Sam Farmer is a neurodiversity community self-advocate, writer/author, and public speaker. Diagnosed later in life as autistic, Sam shares stories of lived experiences, ideas, and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in the face of challenge and adversity. A Long Walk Down a Winding Road – Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens is his first book. Visit samfarmerauthor.com to learn more.