Alexis Wineman on her journey with autism and meeting her hero, Dr. Temple Grandin
Alexis Wineman, the first Miss America pageant contestant with autism and Miss Montana 2012, recently attended a Future Horizons autism conference in Great Falls, Montana, where she met her hero, Dr. Temple Grandin. She was kind enough to contribute this guest post to FHautism.com about her journey with autism.
The Miss America pageant and my time as Miss Montana 2012 was a turning point in my life. I found courage and discovered new skills I never thought I was capable of having. For the first time, I saw a "future" for me.
A few years prior to the competition, I truly believed my life had no point. High school was something I was supposed to do and eventually drop out, because that's the story statistics tell. Those same numbers also tell us that we will likely live with our parents and the potential of finding a job is low. I had resigned to that destination because when I received the diagnosis at age 11, I felt as though all the dreams I had held up to that point disappeared when told what was "wrong" with me.
My family kept their gentle – but firm – hand on my back and forced me at times to "get out of my own head," telling me I wasn't just a statistic. At the time I didn't really understand what they meant, but over the past couple of years there have been moments that have helped me grasp the meaning better as well as build my self confidence.
One of those "ah-ha moments" was hearing my name, "Alexis Wineman," said over and over while Miss Montana 2012. I used to be called all sort of names, because my words fell silent due to my multiple speech impediments, so hearing my name and having people come up and want to talk and listen to me was new.
Middle and high school were hard years, but that was when I discovered Dr. Temple Grandin. When I first heard her story, I thought it was nothing short of incredible. I started looking more into her story and began researching her accomplishments. I was so moved, even crying at times while I read about her achievements despite what she had gone through. The more and more I read and looked up, the more the black storm clouds of self-doubt and hate evaporated from my soul, replaced with a feeling that shined stronger than anything I ever felt before.
It took me a while to realize that this new feeling was hope.
I remember watching the Temple Grandin HBO movie with my parents and seeing a woman – who I can say, without a doubt, is my hero – going through many of the same things I had and was still going through. She was the one person I wanted to meet more than anything, just to say 'thank you' for giving me hope.
When I got the call that Future Horizons had welcomed me to join their conference in Great Falls, Montana, where Dr. Grandin would be the keynote, I screamed. In that moment, all those years of speech therapy flew out the window because I couldn't speak or formulate a sentence. In fact, my mom had to remind me to breathe!
My nerves increased as the days led up to the conference. Who gets to meet their hero? And what if I fall silent again, like I did when I got the call?
The day came; my sister Danielle was by my side, and not only did I get a chance to meet and take a picture with Temple Grandin, Future Horizons provided us an opportunity to speak privately. My nerves miraculously were calmed by her. She is as lovely in person as I had made her out to be in my head.
Dr. Grandin and I share having mothers who believe in their daughters’ abilities and who never take ‘no’ for an answer. After we shared stories, she said, "I can tell I would like your mom." She and I both share the belief that opportunities for children and adults on the autism spectrum can only happen if we encourage each other to live outside our comfort zone from time to time.
Acceptance isn't just a campaign slogan for other people. With help from my family, I realized just before entering Miss Montana that I had to accept myself for my differences. If I didn't, then how could I expect others to?
I will admit, personal acceptance is a roller coaster. Despite the strides I have made, I still struggle with some things and I am finding new challenges as I enter adulthood. No matter how tough it gets, I know that the scared, hopeless, young girl I once was is now a more confident young woman who is no longer ashamed.
In fact, I am proud to say that autism doesn't define me, I define my autism.
The opportunity to spend time with Dr. Grandin is another turning point in my life. It ranks right up there with Miss America. It couldn't have come at a better time for me, as I look to start my second year of college with a commitment to continue speaking in support of autism acceptance. Dr. Grandin gave me the courage to keep doing that, even though it can be hard at times. A special thank you to Future Horizons for making this girl's dream come true, but more importantly for being a vital resource for so many families!
Dr. Grandin's words for me were the equivalent to a Super Bowl coach's pep talk encouraging his team to keep up the momentum in the second half. Thank you, Dr. Grandin for your time, support and words of wisdom, which I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I am suited up and ready to head back out on the field for our team!
To stay updated on Alexis' autism projects and speaking engagements, like her page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @AlexisWineman. Also, don't forget to bookmark Future Horizons for updates on our upcoming autism conferences with Dr. Temple Grandin and other renowned autism speakers.
Photos courtesy of Danielle Wineman.