5 Questions with Alexis Wineman: Miss America’s First Autistic Contestant

When she takes the stage this Saturday in Las Vegas, the reigning Miss Montana will become the first autistic contestant to compete for the crown

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Miss Montana Alexis Wineman
Miss Montana Alexis Wineman

When Alexis Wineman, 18, takes the stage at the 2013 Miss America pageant this Saturday in Las Vegas, the reigning Miss Montana will become the first autistic contestant to compete for the crown. Diagnosed at the age of 11, Wineman’s platform is to raise awareness about the developmental disorder. She spoke to TIME about her start in pageants, Honey Boo Boo and what she plans to do after this weekend’s competition.

As a young girl, you never dreamed you would be involved with beauty pageants. When did that change?
It started as a last-minute way to pay for college. Around high school graduation, I realized I was the fourth child in my family to go to college, and there was no money left for me. I asked my mom about different ways to get scholarships, and she mentioned the Miss Montana competition, thinking I’d never go for it. But I did, and I won.

Autism awareness is obviously a huge part of your platform. What do you hope viewers of Saturday’s contest walk away knowing?
So many people expect autistic people to all be the same—that it’s a brain disorder so we can’t function in society. I want people to realize there’s a whole spectrum of people who live with autism. There are high-functioning people and low-functioning people.

As someone new to pageants, what do you make of the phenomenon of Honey Boo Boo and Toddlers and Tiaras? Do these programs give beauty pageants a bad rap?
To be honest, I’m not familiar with them because I haven’t had time to watch much television over the last couple of years. When I do find time, I’m much more of a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) or The Walking Dead kind of girl.

Tell us about your pageant style. What do you look for in an evening dress?
I’m not big on designers. I like simple, very comfortable and sophisticated dresses, and that’s what I’ll be wearing Saturday.

Regardless the outcome, what’s the first thing you’ll do after the Miss America competition?
I’m going to go to the buffet here in Las Vegas that we’ve been to for lunch and dinner these last two weeks, and I’m going to scarf down this huge cupcake they have. I’ve been walking past it every morning and feeling deprived.

PHOTOS: Miss America Then and Now

35 comments
armaealmonte
armaealmonte

Congratulation to Miss America Mallory Hagan!!! she got 2nd place at frinzee voting competition.

RichyBocaz
RichyBocaz

Miss America is completely wrong name for the contest. America is a continent, not just one country. The right name, just Miss USA.

gracechiou88
gracechiou88

Good luck to Miss Wineman on her upcoming competition!  On the subject of autism awareness could phsicians mistake poeple who have low social interactions for autism?  I remember once reading an article saying that we should not expect behavioral improvements from autistic people.  We need to treat autistic people with the same level of care and love as before.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Comment #2:

As a former public school teacher, I have worked with many students on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (informally called, 'ASD' by educators and school psychologists).

To be sure, I am very proud of Alexis Wineman ('Ms. Montana'), and her stunning accomplishments.  It is both noteworthy and marvelous that such a young lady received such recognition.

However, as a word of caution, Ms. Wineman only represents the "best-of-the-best" of the higher-functioning ASD community.  She is VERY lucky to not be afflicted by Autism's more 'telling' symptoms.  Again, from personal experience, many individuals on the ASD will avert your gaze, avoid social interaction, and react adversely to changes in routine (or even classroom set-up).  Those students who are more low-functioning ASD will be hardly conversant, fixated on a particular object/subject area, and have the tendency to 'head-bang' off the walls or desks.

From that, again, I believe that Ms. Wineman is a very lucky young woman.  Furthermore, while Ms. Wineman can be used to represent, "The Best of Those on the ASD," it would not be fair to exhibit her as "progress" for those in the ASD community.  Only a handful of individuals on the ASD would be able to handle the 'beauty pageant' pressures.  Ms. Wineman was certainly able, but that does not mean that other such individuals can be automatically 'elevated' in a similar manner.  

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

This will be the first of 2 separate comments:

What on Earth is a discussion of Syrian current events doing on a 'beauty pageant article' discussion forum???

Seriously, there's a time and a place for everything!

Ebba Kh
Ebba Kh

They have money ,we have courage ..they buy weapons , we give sacrifice .we are very proud of our Syrian Arab Army because he give a real example for faithfulness and loyalty to his country " Syria " and he is gonna prove to the whole world that he is the army of crises in the war and in the peace every Syrian Arab solider are ready to defend his country in any time

Ebba Kh
Ebba Kh

Syria is not a weak country but we are facing a universal attack . Unfortunately some of Arab countries are involved too , especially with the section related to the media . Some of Arabic channel like (al - jazirah and al - arabia ) try to fake events , and say that the syrian arab army did the crimes in Syria . In fact, these channels try their best to show that the armed terrorist groups are wronged , and the syrian arab army are oppressive which is totally wrong . The real fact is , those armed groups donot want peacefull freedom and kill anyone support syrian government

Ebba Kh
Ebba Kh

Syrians will never lose their trust in the ability of the Syrian Arab Army to protect them from the criminal actions of the armed groups , our armed forces have recently freed , in a qualitative operation , the team of the syrian al - Ikhbariya satellite channel who were kidnapped by an armed terrorist group in al - Tal area in Damascus countryside

Ebba Kh
Ebba Kh

The Syrian Arab Army is here to protect,sacrificing ,their lives to save those of the innocent civilians .and the syrian authorities are continuously releasing those who got involved in the events taking place but whose hands are clear of the syrian,s blood - on the other side , the , free army , militia keepon kidnapping , killing , slaughtering under the name of Islam...

BobbyLacubsfan
BobbyLacubsfan

She's smoking hot... it wouldn't matter if she was a serial killer.. she's SMOKING hot!

kimberlywippert
kimberlywippert

I am from Montana and also work with special needs students from time to time since 2005 and I would like to say YOU GO GIRL!!!! I am hoping that your success helps other autistic men, women and children to achieve success as well. I am hoping that even just the publicity and better informing people to help curb the bullying and the treating others different. My husband and children are rooting for you too!!! My husband Joe said that he hopes Mike goes to the Heart Attack Grill and has a Triple Bypass Burger for him!!!

We are all proud of you, good luck. The Wipperts

Roger Layton
Roger Layton

That's an insult to the legitimate contestants who worked so hard.

sharleenehurst
sharleenehurst

It's great to see fellow autistic people "come out". I remember when I was growing up in the 60's and 70's in that great bastion of liberalsim- Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts- I was literally TORURED by my classmates and TEACHERS for being "WEIRD" and "DIFFERENT"! There were no standing ovations for any achievement or positive newspaper articles for any grand efforts I made, only harrassment, humiliation and ostricisism every time I did anything! Adult life has'nt been much better. You would be surprised how much bullying goes on in the work place. Amagin what it is like to work TWICE as hard as anyone one else and still face insults, cold sholders and sit alone every day at lunch. Lets hope this new attitude toward a condition that NON OF US ASKED FOR will help guarantee that present and future generations will have a better life! Every one deserves a chance to participate in society and live with dignaty and with out fear. We all want to make a contribution! YOU GO, ALEXIS! YOU'R "PEEPS" ARE ROOTING FOR YOU!!!

Maynor Linares
Maynor Linares

Keep it to yourself Zahid please .... Seriously !!!!

Michael McCloud
Michael McCloud

Even though I think that beauty pageants are eye-rolling anachronisms, it's still a positive development that all people who qualify, including a woman with autism (People First language, please) can be included. A good thing for those who watch and participate.

Natasha Coe
Natasha Coe

Autism doesn't make you any less capable than anyone else.

nanbohn
nanbohn

@mrbomb13 While, of course, you are correct on what I would call a clinical assesment of this disorder I think, just as Miss Montana predicted, you missed the point. It is actually just as hard for the high functioning people on the spectrum or best of the best as you labeled them because they are not afforded the courtesy shown to people who are more obviously affected with this disorder. The higher functioning are often treated as nerds or geeks and allowed to be bullied more. School personnel are less likely to come to their defense and making friends is almost impossible. Because they don't having the more telling symptoms, as you call it, they are basically teased and ignored and thought of as just plain weird or different. Miss Montana has a platform now to address that group of lovely people who just want to be understood and respected and above all included.

sng
sng

@mrbomb13 
That's a very sad way of seeing the beautiful girl do something that you just wouldn't expect a child/teen with any level of Autism. The children, teens, and adults that are high functioning - like Asperger's in the case of my son - are the bridge for the high needs children, teen, and adults to the world and vice versa.  I have found that they can reach the low functioning kids, and the just understand and far more patient with them - each other bring out the best in each other.
Don't diminish her struggles because their her struggles, each child is different and each case of Autism is different.  As well as this is a great opportunity for Autism to be shown in a positive and different light one in which the greater public may want to learn more.  Hopefully you can see that even the low functioning are super kids and that make great strides every day - they may not may eye contact but they know you're there and they care/love you - it's up to us to see/find their signs.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@nanbohn @mrbomb13

First, thank you for your reply.  Just a few comments:

1) When you say I "missed the point [of Ms. Montana's prediction]," I can only assume you meant her following quote from the article:  "So many people expect autistic people to all be the same—that it’s a brain disorder so we can’t function in society. I want people to realize there’s a whole spectrum of people who live with autism. There are high-functioning people and low-functioning people."

First, as the comment thread shows, I did not expect all autistic/ASD people to be the same.  I also recognized that it is a neurological/brain disorder.  Furthermore, I noted that (given it is a brain disorder) she is incredibly lucky to function as well as she's demonstrated.  As noted in my comments on Autism Spectrum Disorder, I too realized that it is a spectrum disorder.  Lastly, I was well-aware of both high- and low-functioning ASDs.  

Given all of that, can you please further elaborate on how I missed her point?

2) You then say that it's, "just as hard for the high functioning people on the spectrum...because they are not afforded the courtesy shown to people who are more obviously affected with this disorder."  The comment assumes that low-functioning ASDs are treated with more courtesy from the start.  From having been a teacher across multiple school districts, I can assure you that such "courtesy" is nowhere near guaranteed.  Low-functioning ASDs stick out like sore thumbs to their classmates, and other students don't always know how to "react appropriately" (need I elaborate?).  Even regular teachers are frequently at a loss as to how to handle a low-functioning ASDs emotional and social instability (speaking from personal experience).  From that, I must disagree that (in those areas) it's just as hard for high- as it is for low-functioning ASDs.  High-functioning ASDs can control and handle themselves much better than low-functioning ASDs, and thus escape much of the peer criticism.

3) Before the DSM-5, I can assure you that students with Asperger's Syndrome (which Ms. Montana very likely had, as her condition was far more mild than most) were accorded all of the appropriate accommodations under their IEP.  However, that does not mean that teachers can act as the student's bodyguard against every suspected act of bullying outside of the classroom.  Furthermore, I reject the assertion that "higher-functioning [ASDs] are...allowed to be bullied more."  I can attest to the 'zero-tolerance' environment in all public schools, and can promise that the vast majority of teachers would not allow bulling to occur under their watch - whether against ASDs or non-ASDs (i.e. the nerds/geeks you mentioned).

4) Following that, I also reject the assertion that, "School personnel are less likely to come to their defense."  Again, whether ASD or non-ASD, I guarantee that virtually all school personnel take a proactive approach to resolving all suspected and on-going conflict.  

As for the notion that, "making friends is almost impossible," that is indeed a challenge for some high-functioning ASD students.  However, they stand a much better chance than do low-functioning ASDs, because their social/emotional states are not as adversely affected by the disorder.  As such, the claim of "near impossibility of friendship" depends on a case-by-case basis, and is by no means absolute.

5) "Because they don't having the more telling symptoms, as you call it, they are basically teased and ignored and thought of as just plain weird or different."  Again, those students are not ignored by the teachers and administrators, who must take a proactive approach towards helping them.  

However, in some cases, high-functioning ASDs are indeed teased or ignored.  Being teased is unfortunate, but when it 1) happens outside our purview and then 2) is never brought to our attention, there is little we or the parents can do to alleviate it.  

With regards to being ignored, some high-functioning ASDs want the privacy/solitude.  They do not like larger, noisier groups.  As one guidance counselor put it, "they are at-ease in their own little world."  If the ignoring is intentional, we can only encourage (but not mandate) ASD/non-ASD interaction.

With regards to being viewed as "plain weird or different," that is far more true in the elementary/Jr. high grades (K-8).  However, by the time students reach high school in the year 2013, there is much more general acceptance and understanding of students with special needs.  High School students of this generation are more sensitive to special needs students, and respect them as such in most cases.

6) I am very glad that Ms. Montana has a high-profile platform to address those individuals with ASD, and I wish her the best of luck in championing her platform.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@sng @mrbomb13 

Also, best of luck to you and your son.  

Out of curiosity, how will (or, will) his therapy change since Asperger's Syndrome will be eliminated from the DSM-5?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@sng @mrbomb13

First, thanks for your reply to my comment.  Just a couple of comments/clarifications:

1) I fail to see how I have "diminished her struggles."  If anything, I noted how such accomplishments were "noteworthy" and "marvelous."  Given her place on the ASD, I also said she was very "lucky" to have achieved so much, especially when many on the ASD would (and could) not.

2) I will concede that high-functioning ASDs can reach low-functioning ASDs better than most.  However, that does not mean that low-functioning children gradually become high-functioning.  Placement on the ASD is a neurological function, and frequent interactions/mainstreaming do not necessarily lead to improvement.  I saw that both as a former teacher who's dealt with students on the spectrum, and as someone who's interacted with school psychologists, parents, administrators, teachers, guidance counsellors, etc.  It sounds cold, but I would rather be honest with you than sugarcoat reality.

3) Ms. Wineman ('Ms. Montana') did not necessarily have autism.  The article characterized her as a high-functioning young woman on the ASD.  If she did have autism, I strongly doubt she would have been able to handle the pressures of a beauty pageant, media interaction, etc..  She most likely had a very mild form of Aspergers - which is going to be eliminated in the new DSM-5 (http://news.yahoo.com/aspergers-disorder-eliminated-dsm-5-225900646.html).  

4) I have had some low-functioning students who were 'super students.'  They worked harder than many in my classes.  However, I also had some students on the ASD who were unholy terrors - yelling and screaming about at the slightest change in noise level.  They would physically attack other students when they suspected their routines were being 'violated.'  Again, I'm just being honest with you about my experience.

5) I'm more than aware of 'the signs' those children give us.  When they are given, I am more than appreciative, because it helps me to help them better.

Overall, my point is not to degrade or demean Ms. Wineman's accomplishments, as they should be celebrated.  However, I'm tempering that celebration with realism.  Ms. Wineman was not of "the norm" of ASD individuals, and her demonstrated abilities among ASD individuals are rare (at best).  My point is that just because she could do it does not mean that anyone and everyone with autism/ASD could.  Her situation is exemplary, but make no mistake - it is "the exception to the rule."

sng
sng

@mrbomb13 @sng 
same as we have always done.  His support at school doesn't go away - and it's just me with him and his sister - and his activities (sports).  He passes for normal until an outburst - or people notice that I have repeated instructions to him a few more times then they would to their "perfect kids".  My son is a A / B+ student, he does have friends but still doesn't socialize with them out of school...  and in the past his outburst would put anyone off and has been called "holly terror" and "demon child" by a couple of teachers.  (So I get very put off when any child is called such)   The last one who did - we left the school - and into the classroom of a teacher who worked miracles with my son...  But as he is high functioning all his progress is his choice to make.  She gave a safe and understanding learning environment and he works to do the rest.  Finally identified at 11 year and 3/4 and he's now 13.
 Last June when he graduated grade 6 - his grade 4 teacher came a gave him a card and gift certificate from that teacher and 2 others - he was just as a "holly terror" in their classes but they never called him that nor did they ever give up on him.
I believe that eliminated Asperger's is a mistake - and eventually be reinstated...  Such a identification shouldn't take away from any attention or support or services to the needs of the ones in the mid to low functioning of the spectrum.  It's very sad that is why that they have done so.  The needs are different but it's there none the less.  A social work that worked with my son and she's high functioning...  she has university degrees, she's married, she has a career (she works with all children with special needs), and she's a mother...  A mother to 2 sons who are also high functioning Autism - her oldest is now in college to become a teacher's aid, so he can work and help children with special needs but Autism especially.  They still have their sensory issues and work hard every day - to not let them get the best of them...  I'm sure not every single time as we're all not perfect.
I know a mother - who is a teacher's aid in my daughter's class last year - her daughter was finally identified - at 16 years old -  around the same time as my son but it done so after she hurt herself because she couldn't take not being the same as others and her sensory issues got the best of her...  It's kids like that that are going to fall through the cracks.  The teen is now fine and thriving...
Here in my city - we have an ER doctor who has Asperger's - and he's the one you want to get as he's just awesome...  I know several other adult that have it as well - all members of society, all with pressures, and yet they succeed.  Some of these adult are just newly identified and it has finally answered alot of their own questions about themselves.

I'm in Canada which has it's own psychological association but it normally keeps most findings similar.  There is a following that would like Canada not to just follow suit but do their own research and studies.  So our struggle here isn't over.


sng
sng

@mrbomb13 @Hieronymous @sng 
also his social skill are lacking for someone his age.  Doesn't get majority of sarcasm.  The world revolves around him.  Even when pouring his milk he's going to fast and spills every where.  
No use crying over spilled milk - and my son is lucky as he has many blessing.  He consistently is learning to be better to adapt and those who want to be around him adapt to him and include him.  It's consistent work and reminding - many good times and many bad times.

We're all perfectly imperfect and perfectly happy  

sng
sng

@mrbomb13 @Hieronymous @sng 
That's thing - they may have Asperger's or PDD-Nos - but they have Autism characteristics.  Like sensory issues to light, sound, touch, taste, smell, body awareness, balance, over need to routine, little or no eye contact, obsessive behaviours as well, and social skills.  Some even have delayed speech   What works on them is the same therapies and the more sever cases as Autism.  If you were to compare brain scans of a sever Autism child, an Asperger's child, and a "normal" child...  you would see that the first 2 sever Autism and Aperger's light up the same way just different brightness.
My son avoids eye contact, certain foods bothers him, totally dependent on a routine (you have to give him plenty of notice of change and sometimes even them), certain clothes troubles him, he has 2 speeds fast and faster, no balance (@ 13 and still cannot ride a bike), and he chews his tongue - he does a slight arm flap.  

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@Hieronymous @mrbomb13 @sng 

Actually, I am stating exactly what I said - that "Asperger's Syndrome" will no longer be a recognized as a legitimate psychological diagnosis.

Also, just one point of clarification:  Under this DSM (not DSM-5), "Asperger's Syndrome" is clearly differentiated from "Autism."  Asperger's is only a mild form of Autism.  Those individuals with Autism are generally lower-functioning than those with Asperger's.  Those with autism are generally less sociable, more prone to fixation on individual objects/subjects, and more likely to display "hand-flapping"/"head-banging" behaviors.  Those with Asperger's are characterized as, "active, but odd" (but more sociable than autistics).

Under the DSM-5, it won't matter whether someone exhibits more Asperger's-like or Autistic-like symptoms.  As you said, it will all fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder umbrella.  It remains to be seen whether that will help or hurt those particular individuals more.

Hieronymous
Hieronymous

@mrbomb13 @sng

I read the article you noted.  It says that Asprger's will not be called out separately but instead will be noted as ASD.   --- "elimination of the separate diagnosis of "Asperger's Disorder" in favor of the umbrella term "autism spectrum disorder..." It seems like you are stating that people with Asperger's will no longer be considered autistic.  I don't believe that is what it is stating.   

teknodum
teknodum

@mrbomb13 @sng  

I completely agree. I too worked with ASD kids ,(SLP/ESE)   You are exactly correct