A former Miss Montana and her twin sister spoke at William Woods University yesterday as a part of a class project to promote autism awareness.
The class, a communications senior seminar, hosted Alexis Wineman, the first Miss America contestant with autism, and her sister, Amanda Wineman, at Cutlip Auditorium to speak about their life surrounding the condition.
Alexis was diagnosed at age 11, and struggled for most of her life to that point trying to find the cause of her behavior. At one point, Alexis said, she was misdiagnosed and prescribed a high dosage of Zoloft, which caused her to black out and caused her to have suicidal tendencies that she never acted on.
"I don't remember being 10," Alexis said.
After dealing with years and years of the unknown, the diagnosis didn't mean much to Alexis when it was finally secured because she already went through a lot in her childhood.
"It didn't matter to me ... I flet like it came 11 years too late," she said.
Now, Alexis and her family are advocates for autism awareness and she uses her title as a former Miss Montana to promote understanding while sharing her story.
Her intent for pageants was financially motivated, she said, as the scholarship money looked attractive while thinking about college.
Beauty pageants were at the bottom of her scholarship list, but as her list became shorter, the Miss Montana pageant became more and more appealing.
"I didn't even know how to use make up, a curling iron or a hair dryer," she said.
Support from her family, especially her three siblings who Alexis said push her out of her comfort zone, helped push her to win the Miss Montana crown. It was the first pageant she ever entered.
That title lead to competing in Miss America, where she entered the national spotlight as the national contest's first ever autistic competitor and won "America's Choice."
"Ryan Seacrest voted for me," Alexis said. "It was awesome."
The national attention also brought on a greater understanding, she said, of how she's impacted others.
Only 24 hours after winning Miss Montana, Alexis said she received a message from a New Mexico mother.
"She told me, "Thank you. You give my son hope,'" Alexis said.
The message brought her to tears because she once feared autism would hold her back in life, but in that moment, she realized she was giving someone the gift of hope.
Alexis also said her choices are what defines her, not her autism.
"It's part of who I am, but it's not the part I chose," she said.
She added that every person with autism is different and that the condition is not "one size fits all."
Her sister said caring for others, paying attention, listening and learning from every opportunity are the best pieces of advice she could give for those interacting with those with autism.
"Do as much as you can to accept people," Amanda said.
After the discussion, the communications students held a autism simulation in which people were able to experience a bit of what it feels like to be autistic and deal with sensory issues.
Stations were set up for hearing, sight, touch, taste, balance and body awareness.
The class is taught by William Woods University professor Aimee Sapp.