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Miss Montana: Autism doesn't define me

By Alexis Wineman, Special to CNN
January 17, 2013 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alexis Wineman was diagnosed with a form of autism at 11
  • She won the Miss Montana competition last year
  • Wineman says the Miss America pageant was "my own personal Everest"

Editor's note: In The Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week, meet Alexis Wineman, who was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, a form of autism, at age 11. Last week, Wineman, who won the Miss Montana competition last year, appeared as one of 54 beauty queens in the Miss America pageant. She reached the top 15, winning the America's Choice Award for getting the most online votes from the viewers.

(CNN) -- I knew there had to be a reason my family and I went through tough days together. I didn't understand why then, but the past couple of weeks have put so much into perspective.

The lonely days of pacing around my kitchen seemed like some of the longest days of my life. If anyone had told me then that I would be wearing a crown, an evening gown, heels and a swimsuit in front of a live audience with bright lights and television cameras hovering around, I'd have been the first one to dismiss it.

I realize now that even my toughest days pale in comparison to the toughest days of others living with an autism spectrum disorder. I've been given this opportunity to use my voice for those who don't have one or have yet to find theirs.

My path may not be one that another person would choose, but I challenged myself to enter the Miss America competition because it seemed like the peak to my own personal Everest. It also seemed kind of ironic: a girl who was told she was different and considered an outcast by many, in the nation's biggest beauty pageant.

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I knew I would face challenges and even some skepticism, but I never expected the outpouring of support that continues to come in.

Winning the America's Choice title during the competition was the highest honor for me. The fact that so many people, to whom I am a total stranger, took the time to elect me as their contestant of choice is something I am still trying to comprehend.

The glitz and the glamour may have faded from the wonderful experience of Miss America, but my commitment to raising awareness about autism and building bridges of acceptance grows stronger each day -- especially after I read e-mails, Facebook posts or tweets from the people who have supported my journey.

I will be successful if just one person encounters a child who is overstimulated without staring, if one teenager invites an "outcast" to lunch or just smiles at him or her, or if one employer gives a job to someone who might not be able to look the interviewer in the eye.

I also hope that families reading my story who feel isolated or have concerns and questions about their children know they are not alone -- there is a wonderfully loving community with people just waiting to be your friend and mentor.

One thing I have learned in partnering with organizations like AbilityPath.org and Generation Rescue is that the special needs community is one of the most loyal and supportive groups anyone could join. I'm honored to be a part of this new circle of friends, and have no doubt that it was the people who found me relatable and believed in me that helped me become America's Choice.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know there is a lot for me to do to make sure people really get that "Normal is just a dryer setting."

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