Miss Montana Uses Her Platform, Personal Obstacles to Hearten Autistic Community

Editor’s note: This story was original published on Make It Missoula on December 4, 2012.

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO, Media Relations Coordinator at MCT

Alexis Wineman prevailed over challenges on her way to becoming the state’s beauty queen.

Wineman, 18, spent her childhood in Cut Bank trying to deal with the results of autism. She had difficulty relating to and communicating with others. She says she was unsociable and others would bully her and mock the manner  in which she spoke.

Life got harder for Wineman in fifth grade, when the school curriculum required steady concentration and timed tests, which made it more difficult for her to adjust. At times she felt angry, even resentful. Her parents took her to see her minister, and then to talk with a counselor. She wasn’t compliant.

“I felt as if I was all by myself growing up,” says Wineman. “I knew something was wrong and no one could tell me what it was. Cut Bank is a wonderful town full of warm-hearted people, but it had no resources for someone like me.”

In seventh grade, she was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, including borderline Asperger’s syndrome. “My life felt over at that point,” says Wineman, “Looking back, though, it really helped me because I finally got the help I needed.”

Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman

In high school, her siblings encouraged her to join the speech and drama team and to participate in one of the Missoula Children’s Theatre’s frequent week-long residencies. She found that performing boosted her self-confidence and helped her socialize.

“I grew up with the Missoula Children’s Theatre,” says Wineman. “It was the first time in my life where I wasn’t being judged by people. I tried out for shows every year, and I even volunteered to do lights. I had the supporting role once of Foxy in Snow White. Theatre really pushed me out of my comfort zone. It made my childhood. My brother and sister are both theatre majors and I love to perform.”

Theatre and performing were her proverbial saving graces. The “group of misfits” in speech and drama became her closest friends, and she went to state tournaments. The arts have allowed her to, as she says, “just experience those normal things.”

“By the time I graduated, I was proud of who I was,” says Wineman. “I was confident that I had overcome the hole in which I had been sinking.”

She surprised everyone when she elected to enter the Miss Montana contest. She told people she wanted to “prove to them what she could do.”

Wineman has been accepted to the University of Montana, but as part of her contractual obligations as Miss Montana, she is deferring enrollment for a year. In January, she will be on the national stage in Las Vegas competing in the Miss America pageant.

Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman

“I can’t even say it without giggling,” says Wineman. “It wasn’t too long ago when I was the weird kid in the corner who didn’t have many friends. Being on the autism spectrum is a life adventure, and one that I realize has been given to me for a purpose.”

In the meantime, Alexis travels across Big Sky Country talking to kids about developmental disabilities similar to her own and using her platform to form a relationship with the autistic community. She says that this is something she would have done even without the Miss Montana designation.

When Alexis was informed that the Missoula Community Theatre would be presenting an adaptive performance of Miracle on 34th Street The Musical to accommodate people on the autism spectrum, she graciously availed herself to become part of the night’s proceedings.

“It’s incredible. At one point I was that ornery kid in the theatre. I didn’t like being in the theatre because it was too loud, too bright. I would have to leave the show. Before a performance, I had to get into the right mindset to try dealing with it. I had problems when I got home, I’d let off a lot of steam because of the stress.

“When I was told that this was being done, I thought, ‘this type of show is long overdue’.”

The adaptive performance of Miracle on 34th Street The Musical takes place Tuesday, December 4, 2012. Tickets for this performance are available by phone at the MCT Box Office (406) 728-7529 (PLAY). Tickets are $10 per person and all seats are reserved.

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Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.

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Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country NewsUSA TodayWisconsin TrailsBark MagazineMontana Magazine, and BackpackerMagazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.