Miss E-TN Teen wins vs. autism, other obstacles

As a teenager in her second full year of modeling — appearing in both print and film ads for local businesses — Keelie McLawhorn is living a dream neither she nor her mother, Charlotte McLawhorn, could have ever imagined 15 years ago when Keelie was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

Now a confident and stunning 17-year-old Farragut High School junior, Keelie is the returning Miss East Tennessee Junior Miss, preparing to enter her second Miss Teen Tennessee USA Pageant in March.

“I feel more appreciated and loved than I ever have,” Keelie said. “There have been times in my life when I have been teased and bullied for ‘being different.’ … I’ve been discriminated against by my own family, all because I saw and felt the world in a different way.

“We are different, but different isn’t wrong … we all deserve to have a place in this world.” she added. “I believe no person or child should feel like they do not have a place … and if we all try, we can make a difference.”

“She has really come a long way,” said her mother, who has made it her life’s work to help Keelie cope with the condition that never defined her, but certainly put up obstacles early on.

Her formal diagnosis — which at first required four-day-a-week therapy — is Sensory Processing Disorder associated with Aspergers, Texture Aversions, Tactile Defensiveness and Failure to Thrive.

“All of her senses are over-heightened,” explained Charlotte, who is a FHS Class of 1985 alumnae. “Sights, smells and sounds were overwhelming for her until we worked on literally reprogramming her brain.”

Sounds would compel the child to cover her ears, and her mother relates “many times we had to leave stores because Keelie was just overwhelmed.” Today, Keelie is able to talk through and even quietly mediate away overwhelming experiences — but as a little girl it was much harder, her mother said.

“Literally, we just had to learn the right skills set, to help her regroup and refocus then tackle the problem,” Charlotte said, noting she alone worked with her daughter “daily” after they moved from Kingsport to Knox County when Keelie was age 4.

“We no longer had those therapists, but I remembered all her exercises, and we did them at home,” Charlotte added.

“Certain food textures, for example, I just had to literally immerse myself in them, to be able to move past the problem,” said Keelie, who recalled sifting handfuls of rice, beans and pasta through her fingers until feeling it no longer bothered her.

“We had a therapy box, to help her decompress, and she was able to build up her sensory overload — just like she was washing her hands,” mom said.

In addition to working with Keelie at home, Charlotte has found her daughter’s teachers to be quite understanding.

“I approach her new teachers every year and let them know of her condition,” she said. “They are very open to letting me know if there are any issues. ... A lot of times it has really opened their eyes to the fact that you can’t always look at people and tell they have some form of disease just by looking at them.”

Keelie said her motto is “different is beautiful,” which she has made sure to include in her backstory as part of her platform as she takes on the pageant world.

“If I can help educate people in any way, I am happy to do it because we are all so different,” she added.

As the current East Tennessee Junior Miss, she is spreading the word about autism and other disorders under that spectrum, mentioning it on her Instagram account and through press releases.

She is seeking sponsors and partners for the upcoming 2021 Miss Tennessee Teen USA Pageant March 11-13 in Tunica, Mississippi.

A semi-finalist last year, “I was really nervous, but it was one of the greatest weekends of my life,” Keelie said.

Winning this year’s Tennessee crown would propel her into the National Miss Teen USA pageant later this year.

For more information, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/miss-tennessee-teen-usa-2021.

“Last year was my very first pageant,” she said.

She has also modeled in Atlanta, and eventually

As for modelilng, “She has constantly pushed herself out of her bubble zone,” Charlotte said of Keelie, who has modeled in Atlanta and hopes to be able to make it to the big time in New York or Paris after obtaining a degree in graphic design.

“For so long, she didn’t want to be around other kids, but now, she is truly a social butterfly.”