Read below for a guest post from Ron Sandison.
“For nothing is impossible with God.” – Luke 1:37
Cut Bank, Montana, the hometown of auburn-haired, shy beauty, “Miss Montana” Alexis Wineman, is a small community with a population of 3,000. Alexis and her twin sister, Amanda, were born five weeks premature. Kim and her husband, Michael, quickly noticed a neurological difference between Alexis and Amanda. When Alexis was frustrated or cried, her whole body would tighten up for hours. Nothing seemed to bring Alexis relief from her meltdowns.
Alexis was delayed in her motor skills; Amanda reached her developmental milestones on time. Alexis had difficulty with walking and speaking and was unable to touch a toy ball placed before her. The whole family babied Alexis, and their neighbors said, “Alexis is fine. She’s just behind in development because she’s the baby of the family.”
Alexis’s heavy speech impediment caused her to be verbally bullied. Children called Alexis a retard and told her she was not worth the breath she was breathing. Eventually, Alexis stopped talking to avoid attention.
In the fourth and fifth grade Alexis began to display behavioral problems. Kim felt devastated when Alexis’s teacher referred to her adorable daughter as the “pokey little puppy.” Math equations took Alexis twice as much time to solve as they did her classmates. When Alexis became angry and frustrated from her struggles with algebra, the instructor would send her in the hall to calm down.
After school, Alexis would withdraw to her room for hours and shutdown from interaction with her family. When upset she would bang her head relentlessly against the wall or descend into a screaming tantrum. Kim and Michael, desperate for help, sought counsel from their pastor. The pastor wisely advised, “Alexis’s behavioral issues require professional help. She needs to be evaluated by a therapist.”
After intensive neurological testing, Alexis was diagnosed at age 11 with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS) and borderline Asperger’s. A psychiatrist prescribed an antidepressant, which had a horrible reaction, causing Alexis to become more withdrawn and depressed.
Alexis’s mom was determined to help her daughter overcome autism by developing self-esteem. Kim encouraged Alexis to use her talent of drawing and had her take ceramics classes. Alexis learned social skills as she competed on the cross-country team, cheerleading squad, and drama group. Kim jokes, “I was the Cut Bank High School cheerleader coach. So I forced Alexis to join our team.”
Kim encourages special needs parents, “Find your child’s niche that involves other people.”
Alexis loves playing PlayStation games but when she plays games, she does it by herself. The drama group, composed of students considered by their peers as “misfits,” encouraged Alexis to leave her comfort zone by performing comedy routines. While competing for Miss Montana and Miss America Alexis used the skills she developed from the drama group to win over the audience with laughter.
Kim instructs parents, “Teach your child to leave her comfort zone and learn new things. This will develop her confidence to handle real life situations.”
As Alexis entered her senior year of high school, she asked her mom, “What scholarships are available for college?” Kim provided her daughter with a list of scholarships that included the Miss Montana program. A few days later, Alexis excitedly told her parents, “I am going to compete for Miss Montana.” Kim and Michael’s jaws hit the carpet in terror, “Miss Montana? Alexis doesn’t like make-up or the sensation of fancy clothes.”
“Never put a limit on your child. For nothing is impossible with God.”
Alexis was determined. On the first night of competition, Alexis felt overwhelmed. She was confident on the stage but experienced social awkwardness among her follow contestants. After three days of competing, Alexis and her family were amazed as she was crowned Miss Montana. Diane Sawyer named Alexis her “Person of the Week.”
Alexis’s platform for Miss America is Normal Is Just a Dryer Setting: Living with Autism. While competing for Miss America, Alexis advocated for autism by wearing a light blue evening gown the same color of the puzzle piece symbol of Autism Speaks. A few hours into the pageant, Alexis exclaimed to a fellow contestant with tears, “Holy crap, I’m in Miss America!” Alexis declared, “Autism doesn’t define me. I define it.”
Alexis was voted “America’s Choice,” earning her spot in the live show competition with the other top 16 contestants. While touring as Miss Montana, Alexis asked her mom, “Do you think God has a plan for me?” Kim replied, “You are living the plan God has for you— helping others with autism.”
Alexis shares at autism conferences, “I will be successful if just one person encounters a child who is overstimulated without staring. If one teenager invites an “outcast” to lunch or just smiles at him or her. If one employer gives a job to someone who might not be able to look the interviewer in the eye.” Her goal is to use the unique opportunities God has given her to be a voice for those who don’t have one and redefine people’s perspectives of autism.
Alexis advocates, “We can begin to understand autism, and help those with the condition to unlock the potential that lies within all of us.”
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is currently writing, A Christian Concise Guide to Autism. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with their pet rabbit, Babs, and cat, Frishma. You can contact Ron on Facebook or email him.