January 18th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

Miss Montana: Autism doesn't define me

Editor's note: Alexis Wineman was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, a form of autism, at age 11. Last week, Wineman, who won the Miss Montana competition last year, appeared as one of 54 beauty queens in the Miss America pageant. She reached the top 15, winning the America's Choice Award for getting the most online votes from the viewers.

By Alexis Wineman, Special to CNN

(CNN) - I knew there had to be a reason my family and I went through tough days together. I didn't understand why then, but the past couple of weeks have put so much into perspective.

The lonely days of pacing around my kitchen seemed like some of the longest days of my life. If anyone had told me then that I would be wearing a crown, an evening gown, heels and a swimsuit in front of a live audience with bright lights and television cameras hovering around, I'd have been the first one to dismiss it.

I realize now that even my toughest days pale in comparison to the toughest days of others living with an autism spectrum disorder. I've been given this opportunity to use my voice for those who don't have one or have yet to find theirs.

My path may not be one that another person would choose, but I challenged myself to enter the Miss America competition because it seemed like the peak to my own personal Everest. It also seemed kind of ironic: a girl who was told she was different and considered an outcast by many, in the nation's biggest beauty pageant.

I knew I would face challenges and even some skepticism, but I never expected the outpouring of support that continues to come in.

Winning the America's Choice title during the competition was the highest honor for me. The fact that so many people, to whom I am a total stranger, took the time to elect me as their contestant of choice is something I am still trying to comprehend.

Read Wineman's full column

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Filed under: Disabilities • Health • What we think • Women