Say hello to Alexis Wineman, Miss Montana and contender for Miss America, who’ll be competing at the pageant in January. You’re probably sitting there trying to figure out why on Earth I, of all people, am covering the beauty pageant circuit; did she say something offensive? Wear a headdress even though she’s not native, perhaps? Lobby for some conservative anti-choice group? Is she a trans woman?
None of the above, actually!
Her platform is autism awareness, but there’s a twist on the usual iterations of “autism awareness” seen in the mainstream media, where someone without autism appoints herself spokesperson of All Things Autistic. It’s an issue that cuts close to the heart for Wineman because she herself is autistic.
As she puts it, “Normal is just a dryer setting,” and she’s setting out to change the way people view autism, and autistics, with her campaign.
Like a lot of autistic girls, Wineman was diagnosed later in childhood. She struggled with socializing and had difficulty relating to classmates, and felt like the odd girl out. Her differences would have been constantly underscored with no frame of reference to understand why she felt different -- until age 11, when she received a diagnosis and a lot of things started to make sense.
One of her ways of coping was to start performing; she went from withdrawn and awkward to captain of the cheerleading squad, taking the team all the way to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Her talent is comedic monologue, and she’s found performance to be one of the ways that she can push outside herself.
Like other autistic people, though, she doesn’t always experience smooth sailing. Especially with a constantly shifting and confusing schedule with a lot of social time, sometimes she struggles with feeling overwhelmed; so she’s developing coping tools for that, too, like spending some time chilling while listening to music so she can calm down and focus.
I love that Wineman is open about all the aspects of living with autism; the things that work for her and the things that don’t, the fact that she’s still going to experience meltdowns and frustrations even while she’s working on finding a way to manage her autism effectively. What I love most of all, though, is that she spends a lot of her travel and appearance time talking to kids with autism and other developmental disabilities about acceptance and the fact that they have nothing to be ashamed of for being who they are.
The mainstream media, of course, is going gaga over how inspiring and special she is, but what I see is a very different narrative. Alexis Wineman is a badass autistic girl who’s setting out to change social perceptions of autism, not just among people with autism but also among the neurotypical (nonautistic) world.
A lot of autism “awareness” as projected by organizations like Autism Speaks is about how awful autism is, how it’s such a burden on parents and families, how it’s the worst thing ever and should be eliminated. It’s all about finding cures. Wineman’s awareness is about the fact that autistic people exist and there’s nothing wrong with that, that there’s nothing to be afraid or ashamed of if you have autism, that autistic people can set out to accomplish great things.
This is the kind of awareness I can get behind, because there are a lot of misconceptions about autism and what it’s like to live on the autism spectrum. Wineman herself is also in a way a representative of some of the tensions within the autistic community; she’s what some people refer to as “high functioning,” in contrast with autistic people who may require more support and assistance to complete tasks of daily living, who are less able to smoothly integrate with the neurotypical community.
I hope Wineman’s advocacy includes all autistics, reminding neurotypical people that autism takes a lot of forms and every autistic person deserves respect and autonomy, no matter how that person looks, behaves, or communicates. And I want to see her win the pageant not because I think it would be inspiring and ooey-gooey special to see a disabled person take the Miss America crown, but because I’d love to see her platform go national, disrupting conventional narratives about autism and disability.
For once, I might actually tune into a pageant to watch, because I’ll be curious to see how she does on the national stage.
P.S. Alexis, if you’re reading this, the secret to walking successfully in heels starts with well-fitted shoes. Make sure to get a solid measurement of length and width and take the time to get yourself a nice, quality, awesome pair of heels. It’s okay if they cost a lot, because they’ll hold up forever. And with the right fit, you’ll find it a lot easier to move comfortably; start with a low heel on hard surfaces so you can get used to it, and slowly step it up. Remember to move your hips with your legs, rather than trying to counterbalance with them. At first, it will feel like a ridiculous parody of femmey gaits, but I promise it’s more comfortable and stable.
P.P.S. Readers, if you’re sitting here thinking “I have all this time, energy, and money to donate to autism causes! Where can I go if I shouldn’t contribute to Autism Speaks?!,” I recommend checking out the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
Photo credit: Robynlou Kavanagh