Miss Montana 2012 Keynote at 2014 Annual Banquet

The Annual Meeting Banquet Celebration for Mental Health America of Great Falls was held on January 16, 2014. Our guest speaker was Alexis Wineman, Miss Montana 2012, who also won the title of "America's Choice." Her unique personal story "Living with Autism" is a story of triumph of the human spirit. Refusing to let her disorder define her as a person, Alexis celebrates and embraces who she is. Her mother, Kimberly Butterworth shared the stage using a question/answer format. They brought useful information and hope to those who treat and live with autism.

More information on Alexis:

Nineteen-year-old Alexis Wineman was Miss Montana 2012, and in January 2013 won the title of “America’s Choice” at the Miss America competition in Las Vegas, NV, which placed her among the top 15 contestants. At the age of 11, Wineman was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), which puts her on the mild end of the autism spectrum and carries symptoms similar to those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Her unique personal story as the first Miss America contestant diagnosed with autism and the third contestant with a disability since the competition’s inception in 1921 made headlines around the world. She was named by Diane Sawyer as the “Person of the Week” on World News Tonight, and was profiled in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s series "Human Factors: Overcoming Obstacles" on CNN. She also made appearances on Fox and Friends, Good Morning America, 20/20, and was interviewed online for the Today Show, E!New, People, Time, USA Today, and the Huffington Post. Glamour magazine featured Wineman in its April issue that hit stands mid-March 2013. She was also a guest on the Jeff Probst Show. According the Miss America Organization, Wineman was said to have received more press attention than any other contestant in the Miss America Organization’s history.

Wineman’s platform “Normal is just a dryer setting – Living with autism” struck a chord in the hearts of millions of people from around the world, who rallied behind her to successfully get her named “America’s Choice.” Her platform was further elevated by the online campaign that garnered the support and attention from notable pioneers in the world of special needs, such as Maria Shriver, whose family members have dedicated their lives to helping the disabled through organizations like Special Olympics and Best Buddies. Also instrumental in getting out the vote were Holly Robinson Peete’s HollyRod Foundation, Jenny McCarthy’s Generation Rescue, Doug Flutie’s The Flutie Foundation, Temple Grandin, Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Foundation, The Easter Seals, Autism Speaks, Community Gatepath, and many more.

The media attention and online campaign sparked national conversations around the world about the autism spectrum, some even calling Wineman the “new face of autism”. Wineman’s journey gave families of children living on the spectrum hope that “anything is possible”, which is something Wineman had aspired to do when she began the journey to Miss America. An entirely new demographic of viewers tuned into the Miss America show for the first time to cheer her on. And like Wineman, this demographic never thought their child would ever be beauty queen material. Wineman proudly proved them, and herself, wrong.

Wineman’s dedication to spreading autism awareness that began when she was crowned Miss Montana in June 2012 has continued long after her crown came off. As the Ambassador of AbilityPath.org, an online hub and resource for families of children with special needs, Wineman makes appearances across the nation as the keynote speaker at various events, and plans to remain part of the discussions shaping America’s opinion, understanding and acceptance of people living on the spectrum.

During her reign as Miss Montana 2012, Wineman appeared extensively at schools throughout the state promoting the Miss Montana Scholarship program. In addition, she was a keynote speaker at the Special Olympics State Games, and part of a celebrity panel with actress and comedian Jenny McCarthy at the AutismOne conference – the largest annual conference on Autism in the nation.

In high school, Wineman became the captain of her cheerleading squad, was on the cross-country team and the speech and drama team. She also participated in numerous productions of the Missoula Children’s Theater as a way of pushing herself beyond her own limitations. She accredits these experiences as the key to helping her gain self esteem, make friendships and give her the confidence to represent the state of Montana and perform on the national stage at the Miss America pageant.

But before high school, it was a different story. Wineman struggled with school assignments, had frequent meltdowns, was a loner, and endured the challenges of being picked on for her speech impediment, and for being “different.” She felt excluded at an early age and became defensively introverted to evade her speech impediment and the bullying of others.

Despite the struggles she encountered as a young child, Alexis will not let autism place any limitations on her life. As stated in her platform, Wineman says, “I refuse to let my disorder define me as a person. I want people to know that differences are not something to hide or be ashamed of, but rather they should be celebrated and embraced.”

Alexis graduated from Cut Bank High School in May 2012. She is currently attending college at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, along with her twin sister, Amanda. After her experiences these past few years, Alexis has decided to break even more barriers and is majoring in communication and minoring in art. She has always found solace in her drawing and painting. Alexis hails from Cut Bank, Montana and travels extensively promoting her platform.

Alexis picture by Jen Cady