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Autism may soon have a surprising new spokesperson: Alexis Wineman, an 18-year-old Montana woman who hopes to be crowned Miss America on Saturday night.
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"Most people do not understand what autism is," says Wineman in her video entry for the Miss America online finalist competition. "And one in 88 people having some form of autism, this understanding is becoming more and more necessary." To that end, she has made her platform "Normal is Just a Dryer Setting: Living with Autism."
Wineman, who is the current Miss Montana, is both the youngest Miss America contestant this year and the first ever to have some form of autism. The brunette beauty queen was diagnosed at age of 11 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 of Asperger's Syndrome.
And it might just make her an ideal candidate for the crown, autism expert and doctor James Ball tells Yahoo! Shine.
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"Whatever she's committed to, she would be very hyper-focused about getting the information out, and with following through," explains Ball, director of clinical services for New York Families of Autistic Children and author of Early Intervention and Autism: Real-Life Questions, Real-Life Answers. "She'll be passionate about whatever her specific interest is." In addition, he says that many people with this type of autism have excellent communication skills.
On the flip side, Ball explains, "I would think it may overwhelm her," as the duties of being Miss America require frequent travel and speaking engagements. But he adds she could be fine "if she has good people working with her to give her time to de-stress in between engagements."
Wineman, in a recent TV interview on Fox & Friends with host Gretchen Carlson (who was Miss America in 1989), said, "I suffer from constant meltdowns if things get too stressful. I have problems understanding common sayings. I take things very literally. And I have trouble communicating at times."
Additional challenges, Ball explained, could be a difficulty with listening to people and with accepting input that may not jibe with the autistic person's beliefs. (Think: Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory" or Max on "Parenthood.") Trouble picking up on social cues and nonverbal communications-as well as increased egocentricity-are other possible symptoms of having this type of autism Ball says.
But when meltdowns take over, Wineman explained to Carlson, "Just pacing around for 45 minutes is pretty much how I get a hold of myself."
Ball points to famous autism activist and livestock consultant Temple Grandin as a success story. "She has a grueling schedule and goes all over the world consulting," Ball says, adding that she's often spoken publicly about knowing what she needs, like plenty of sleep, to keep her symptoms in check.
Being able to rely on such coping mechanisms is key. Back in 2007, when competitor Heather Kuzmich became a poised and public face of Asperger's Syndrome on the show "America's Next Top Model," she often turned to her mom for support. Though she didn't win, Kuzmich was lauded by host Tyra Banks for her keen ability to connect with the camera, and made it into the final top five.
Wineman told Carlson she deserved to win the crown on Saturday because, "I think the world needs to know that even a girl who has a few differences and was labeled an outcast at first is Miss America material."
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