• Interviews

Kyle Westphal Talks About His Autism Journey in the Documentary “Let Me Be Me”

As a child, everything seemed impossible to Kyle Westphal – going to school, socializing with other kids, looking someone directly in the eye.

Wrapping himself in a blanket comforted him as he felt safe in his world where he could be himself. There, he did not need to face people who expected him to behave in a certain way or speak just like the others. Wrapped in his blanket, he was happy being himself. That was Westphal’s first connection with fabric.


Westphal suffers from autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When he was growing up in the 1990s, little was understood about autism or ways to help children on the spectrum. Therapists “forced” autistic kids to act “normal” or be institutionalized.

Until his mother, Jenifer, discovered a program called Son-Rise that allowed autistic kids to be themselves with volunteers joining the kids in their world.

Now at age 29, Westphal is an emerging fashion designer with a degree in design from Drexel University. His work has been featured on several online fashion sites.

Dan Crane and Katie Taber’s feature documentary, Let Me Be Me, features Westphal and his struggles from childhood to his teen years to college days, and how he was able to overcome his challenges.

The film, written by Crane, also chronicles how the Westphals – Jenifer (who also served as the executive producer) and Jeff – found a way to bond with their autistic offspring through an innovative treatment program (Son-Rise).

Using home movies and stop motion animation, Let Me Be Me is enjoying a successful film festival run, was picked up by Greenwich Entertainment, and is available on Amazon Prime.

In his review of Let Me Be Me for The Independent Critic, Richard Propes wrote, “It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to not be completely engaged by the film’s central subject, Kyle Westphal. In a world where the primal scream of ‘Nothing about us without us!’ has increasingly become the mantra of the disability community, one has to rejoice that Westphal’s voice speaks loudly throughout Dan Crane and Katie Taber’s deeply moving yet occasionally quite challenging doc.”

Asked what he hopes audiences will get after watching the film which premiered at DOC NYC, Westphal said in our email interview with him, “What I hope audiences will get from this film is a story about family, autism, finding yourself, finding your tribe, and building connections. This is just one story about autism, not the only one, and we hope it builds the hope in your own story as well.”


Below are excerpts of our interview with Westphal.

Let Me Be Me is a very inspiring and moving story. Why was it important for you and your family to share your story?

I was just going into my senior year at Drexel University, so I was used to my schedule and the timing worked out really well to shoot a documentary alongside that. It really went hand in hand. All of us had a feeling that this would be the right time. It had been almost ten years since the end of my Son-Rise program, so it allowed us time to reflect on the entire experience and share something important.

Can you talk about the Son-Rise program and how it helps autistic kids? Would you recommend this to families with autistic kids? What would you change about it if you had a chance?

Speaking from my own experience, the Son-Rise program worked well because it allowed me to both trust the people in my program and build a relationship, while also being challenged in a safe environment. It’s a choice each individual family should make.

If anyone is looking for more information, I recommend reaching out to Dr. Wendy Ross at Jefferson Health. If I could change something about the experience, I feel Son-Rise can be done anywhere, not just in a room.

What were the challenges you encountered in making the documentary and how did you handle them?

Looking back, one of the challenges as a subject was leading with your whole heart and being willing to be that vulnerable with people you just met. It was difficult sharing something super emotional with a person I met that day. Being willing to do that took a lot of guts, personally. I handled it by reminding myself that this is an opportunity to share about my childhood. I led with my whole heart and went for it.

As a kid, you already had an affinity for clothing, especially a blanket which you used to “shield” yourself from the outside world.

Having a blanket as a shield allowed me to cut out the noise and be in my own imagination, in my own world. Eventually, it’s about realizing you don’t need to be in the shield 24/7. You can still have your emotional, imaginative life but I learned it’s sometimes better to share that.

In a lot of stories about childhood, the blanket is also a sanctuary. We all built blanket forts as a kid. Building and exploring your imagination is a fundamental part of childhood.


Share the significance of the Disney movie, Cinderella, and how it affected you.

Cinderella is one of my favorite films. It touches on the universal message of kindness and not expecting anything in return. My favorite part is the fairy godmother with her magic wand – after Cinderella’s dress was trashed by her cousins, the fairy godmother makes her feel special again. That’s important to me.

It’s not just the godmother – it’s the whole cast of friends with mice, horses, and the entire stable. She found her tribe, just like Dorothy did on the yellow brick road. There is something special in that. I found my tribe and I’m still finding it today.

What was the most difficult thing about going to a regular school when you were older and how did you handle the bullying and discrimination you experienced?

Drexel was my first time being in a “normal” school. During my homeschooling education, I had to learn about owning your own narrative. I knew people would say something behind my back, but you can take charge of your own path and how people see you. An example of that is Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect – she knew people would call her fat, so she owned it.

I would say, “I’m Kyle and I was on the spectrum, and this is my story of emergence.” People would always say it’s weird or unique or odd, but I just had to own my narrative. It was upsetting at times, but you find people who don’t care and lead with those friends.

Your family, especially your parents Jeff and Jenifer, and your siblings made every effort and did a lot to understand you and get into your world.

My parents really set the foundation in terms of the room and the program. They allowed me to grow from the ground up by creating that foundation. They sacrificed a lot and I’ll always be truly thankful for their willingness to go with this program and challenge me to conquer my fears and celebrate my goals. And also joining me in general. For all of us, we were just a regular family trying to figure it out, and that’s the messy beauty of it all.

You mentioned in the documentary that when you were a teenager, you would watch TV shows about girls interacting and you learned how to interact with people because of this.

At the time, I was a pre-teen and noticed watching TV that the young girls and women ran the social hierarchy at the time. It was about understanding how to enter that social hierarchy and know what’s going on with the goal of becoming more socially engaged. I looked at who was setting the trends and making the rules and learned by observation.

Watching the TV shows – Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, Gilmore Girls, and Gossip Girl – were just among the programs that influenced you into becoming a fashion designer as well as Tyra Banks and Blake Lively.

Those shows allowed for some of the stuff that I innately did in my childhood to be reflected back to me in a modern context.

Being interested in Cinderella as a child and dressmaking, there’s an innate fashion component. I saw that reflected back in America’s Next Top Model and then realized there’s more than modeling. There’s also designing with Project Runway. I really saw that connection from my childhood. Fashion is also how you present yourself to the world and sometimes, you have to fake it ’til you make it. Trying to find that confidence and you can show many sides of yourself in that process.

How was it adjusting to college life as a fashion student at Drexel University College of Media Arts & Design? How supportive were the teachers?

The faculty was really fantastic at Drexel, including Rene Weiss Chase and Roberta Gruber, who are featured in the film, and the rest of the Drexel Fashion Design Department. They challenged and supported me, and I’m grateful for their friendship. The friends I made there are still my friends today, including Alexa who is in the film. We support each other and learn from one another.

What is the significance of the title of the documentary, Let Me Be Me?

Let Me Be Me is about being true to yourself, learning from your mistakes, trying your best, and overall accepting yourself as a human being.