Miss Montana is first autistic contestant for Miss America
There are girls who spend their lives living out an episode of âToddlers and Tiaras.â And then thereâs Alexis Wineman, a Miss America contestant who entered the pageant world on a whim and now is the first-ever Miss America competitor who lives with autism.
âGrowing up, I never was really interested in pageants. I thought it would be something I was never able to do,â said the 18-year-old from Cut Bank, Mont. âBut by the time I graduated, I kind of realized Iâd done a lot of things Iâd never thought I could do.â
She entered and won the Miss Montana program, and is one of 53 contestants vying for the Miss America crown Saturday. âItâs been an amazing, wonderful journey so far,â she said. But itâs been a long journey for Wineman, who told TODAY.com that it was âstressfulâ growing up.
âI was wondering why I was different, why I couldnât make any friends, why I was bullied. I just kept asking myself, âWhy, why, why?ââ
The answer came when she was 11 and diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder and borderline Asperger's syndrome, conditions on the autism spectrum. âI felt like it came 11 years too late,â she said, âbut when it came right down to it, it really did help. I found ways to cope. I was able to move on. By the time I graduated, I was really accepting who I was.â
By then, she was many things she never thought sheâd be: a cheerleader; part of the speech and drama team; a cross-country runner. âI got out of my comfort zone âŚ I was able to be with groups of people I wasnât used to being with.â
Since graduating, Wineman has been speaking at schools and autism conventions, and has formed partnerships with the autism groups Autism Speaks and Generation Rescue and the special needs support group AbilityPath. Her Miss America platform issue is "Normal is Just a Dryer Setting"- Living with Autism.
âGrowing up, all I wanted was to be normal. I just wanted to fit in with everyone else,â she said. âLooking back, I realized it was a waste of time, because normal doesnât exist. If we could just accept people for their differences, it will make life for our children and for ourselves much, much easier.â
According to Autism Speaks, autism now affects 1 in 88 children in the United States, and figures are growing. There is no medical detection or cure.
Winemanâs hope is that autism will be just one trait of many that defines people. âI just wish people would just accept people with autism more instead of pushing them off into a corner and trying to forget that theyâre there âŚ I just want to make these two worlds understand each other.â
Unlikely beauty queen
Unlike many competitors who spend their childhoods on the pageant circuit, getting used to the glamour of pageant life has been an adjustment for Miss Montana. âI was the girl with the hoodies on. I never wore makeup all that much. I wasnât much into beauty at all â to be honest, Iâm still not all that much.â
When she entered the Miss Montana program, Wineman said, her goal was to try something new and see if sheâd like it. Turns out it agrees with her.
âIâve learned to love dressing up if I like what Iâm wearing,â Wineman said. âI only learned how to use a curling iron a few months ago â I only know how to do one hairstyle. Itâs been really fun to dress up and look nice.â
And while others are singing and dancing their way into Americaâs hearts, Wineman plans to make us laugh. Her talent is a stand-up comedy monologue.
âI feel like the judges will be able to tell if youâre enjoying it as much as the audience is,â she said. âOne thing Iâve always loved doing is making people laugh.â
Her routine is about how women are never satisfied with their body image â âpretty ironic for a beauty pageant,â she acknowledged. But the girl who used to hide from the world is now ready for her turn in the spotlight.
âIf you told me 10 years ago that I would be on stage telling jokes to people, I would have told you that youâre crazy,â she said. âI think itâs fair to say that Iâm not the girl I was 10 years ago.â