HELENA — For much of her first 11 years, Alexis Wineman was bullied and teased, staying quiet to hide her speech problems, descending into self-loathing, looking at herself as a punching bag, scratching her arms and even banging her head against walls.
After one bout of frustration in school, a teacher told her she wasn’t getting paid enough to deal with her kind of behavior.
“I felt so alone growing up, and I still do at times,” Wineman, now Miss Montana 2012, told a group of more than 300 people Friday at a conference on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, put on by the Helena-based ChildWise Institute. “Something was wrong with me and no one could tell be what it was.”
Things turned worse for Wineman in fifth grade, when deadlines and timed math tests made it harder for her to stay “below the radar,” or get by “as the cute one who was just a little slow.” Her parents took her to see her pastor, and then a therapist. Wineman, figuring she was there because something was wrong with her, wasn’t cooperative.
Then a doctor saw her for about five or 10 minutes, declared her depressed, and put her on pills that made her tired, angry and forgetful.
Another doctor connected her with a pediatric psychologist. She met a therapist with a cat, which Wineman liked. After three days of tests, she was referred her to a pediatric neurologist, who hooked her head up to wires and gave her more tests.
“To be honest, I didn’t have any idea why I was doing all of this,” she said. “All I knew was I must be sick. Very sick. And it must be bad if I was going to all these doctors.”
Her mother didn’t give up on her, but no matter what she said, it often sent her into fits of screaming.
In seventh grade, her condition found a name: Pervasive development disorder, including borderline Asperger’s syndrome.
“I couldn’t have cared less what it was called,” she said. “It ruined my life before I had a chance to live it.”
She still had some unhelpful teachers, but flunked classes.
Then, in the summer before high school in Cut Bank, she knew things had to change.
She continued cross country running, to help with a sense of belonging. And her siblings encouraged her to join the speech and drama team — “where it is OK to be a little different,” she said, one of many times she drew laughs from the audience.
Still, she specialized in pantomime, to avoid speaking in front of others.
Meanwhile, her mother talked her into joining the cheerleading team.
“And I hated that more than anything,” she said. “And yet it did force me to walk within a peer group that I was not used to, and I did gain communication skills I had yet to tap into.”
The “group of misfits” in speech and drama became her best friends, and she went to state tournaments. She refused to cheerlead as a sophomore, but returned as a junior and (ironically, she said) became squad captain as a senior, and joined in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City.
“And that was cool,” she said.
Such things have been exciting, though she’s had to push to take advantage of such opportunities, she said. “But to be able to experience normal things is also exciting,” she said.
The iPod, she said, has been her saving grace. The music (she’s partial to swing and Celtic) helps her focus and address fears in the morning, and then relax and decompress at the end of the day.
“By the time graduation rolled around, I was proud of who I was, and I was confident that I had overcome this vicious circle in which I had been sinking,” she said. “I graduated high school, which was something I previously felt was impossible.”
She said she surprised everybody when the decided to enter the Miss Montana program. She told people she wanted to prove to others what she could do; but really, she said, she wanted to prove it to herself.
Now, she has been accepted to the University of Montana, and is deferring enrollment for a year and still looking at her options. She’s slated to be on a national stage — the Miss America pageant — in Las Vegas in January.
“Being on the (autism) spectrum is not a death sentence, but a life adventure, and one that I realize has been given to me for a reason,” she said.
The conference at the Best Western Great Northern Hotel aims to help professionals in education, health care and mental health — as well as parents — better understand autism spectrum disorders. In addition to Wineman, the conference features national speakers on the subject and numerous workshops. It continues today.