Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, speaks

Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, speaks during the "2012 Autism, life transitions from pre-school to adult life" forum presented by MSUB Downtown and College of Education and Easter Seals Goodwill.

When Alexis Wineman, Miss Montana 2012, discusses her desire to help people with autism, she’s not speaking in flowery beauty pageant platitudes about trying to make the world a better place.

She’s speaking from experience.

Wineman, of Cut Bank, was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, including borderline Aspergers Syndrome, when she was 11 years old. The diagnosis followed a two-year process that included counseling, an exhaustive battery of tests and at least one misdiagnosis.

Wineman was often teased and bullied at school and said she usually avoided interaction with others when she was younger.

“I felt so alone growing up, and I still do at times,” she said Thursday during a conference on autism at the Montana State University Billings downtown campus. “Nobody understood what I was going through. I separated myself from my classmates and spent most of my time alone. I stayed quiet to hide my speech problems. Due to these overwhelming and daily struggles, I looked at myself as a punching bag for others, and a burden to my family.”

Wineman said the diagnosis helped her understand why she was different from other kids. And with support from her mother, teachers, counselors and her three siblings, she matured into the poised, confident 18-year-old, whose stand-up comedy routine left the audience rolling in the aisles at the Miss Montana pageant.

When she was crowned Miss Montana, Wineman wasn’t sure she had actually won.

 “It was funny because all I heard was ‘Ale-x,’” Wineman said.  “I didn’t even hear my name. It was just my mom screaming and crying. And I cried, too. I turned into a weeping pageant Miss Congeniality.”

School was always a challenge. Wineman remembers that one of her elementary school teachers referred to her as her “pokey little puppy.” In those days she often flew under the radar as the “cute girl who was just a little slower than the others.”

Wineman’s teachers sometimes grew frustrated. One even remarked, “I don’t get paid enough to handle this kind of behavior.”

After she was diagnosed, Wineman received extra help at school. She participated in cheerleading, cross country and speech and drama, and grew comfortable appearing before groups of people. She plans to attend the University of Montana and hopes to pursue a career in art therapy.

“I hope that through my personal platform, normal is just a dryer setting,” Wineman said. “Now I’m preparing for the big stage, Miss America in Las Vegas. I have this amazing opportunity and plan on doing everything to be prepared, but more importantly, to show the world that being on the (autism) spectrum is not a death sentence, but a life adventure.”

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Editor of Billings Business, a publication of The Billings Gazette.