Among this year’s contestants vying for the crown of Miss America, one sets a particular benchmark not visible in evening wear or bathing suits. Alexis Wineman — the 18-year-old wearing the Miss Montana sash — has a form of autism, the first such contender in the pageant.
Though she entered the pageant world on a bit of a whim, she's now one of the 53 contestants looking for the grandest sash in the land.
"Growing up, I never was really interested in pageants. I thought it would be something I was never able to do," Wineman told Today.com "But by the time I graduated, I kind of realized I'd done a lot of things I'd never thought I could do."
Wineman said she'd had a "stressful" experience growing up and always wondered why she had a hard time. That was until she was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder and borderline Asperger's syndrome, both conditions that landed her on the autism spectrum.
She entered the Miss Montana pageant to put herself out of her comfort zone. Wineman never imagined herself on a pageant circuit. As reality shows like "Toddlers and Tiaras" show, some pageant participants spend their entire adolescences in that preening world. But she says she never wore make up growing up, going through school wearing hoodies, instead of high heels and ball gowns.
"I felt like it came 11 years too late," she said, "but 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."
Now that she graduated from Cut Bank High School in Cut Bank, Mo., Wineman works with advocacy groups like Autism Speaks and Generation Rescue and special needs support group AbilityPath. Since graduating, she's traveled and spoken at school and autism conventions.
"I just wish people would just accept people with autism more instead of pushing them off into a corner and trying to forget that they're there … I just want to make these two worlds understand each other."
The 2013 Miss America pageant hits the airwaves Saturday on ABC.
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