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.
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