Alexis Wineman always knew she was different.

“Socializing with my classmates, even when I wanted to, was awkward to say the least. I wouldn’t get their jokes half the time. I took everything so literally,” said the Cut Bank, Mont. resident.

When Wineman was diagnosed with autism at age 11, she finally had a name to put to her experience. Rather than use her diagnosis as an excuse and give up, she took the bull by the horns.

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Today, Wineman, now 18, may very well be the next Miss America. She was crowned Miss Montana in June, becoming the first person on the autism spectrum to claim the sash. In January, she will travel to Las Vegas where she could become the first with the developmental disorder to capture the national title.

It’s been a long road for the self-described “oddball out” whose best friend as a girl was a Winnie the Pooh doll, which she still holds onto.

“He showed me that being different was okay and there was nothing wrong with pacing or sitting in one place for hours just thinking,” Wineman said. “I say why fit in when you were born to stand out.”

Encouraged by her family, Wineman began to break out of her shell after she was diagnosed and engage in school activities. Performing became a way for her to face her fears and learn to cope. Wineman joined the cheerleading squad, ultimately becoming team captain and appearing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Now less than four months into her term as Miss Montana, Wineman and her mother have already put 7,000 miles on their car traversing the state to present her platform — “Normal is Just a Dryer Setting‚ Living with Autism” — at schools, hospitals, conferences and parades.

“It’s amazing how people don’t accept other people just because they’re different. Being different is not something to look down on, but to be embraced,” Wineman said. “People need to understand. I want to talk to kids with autism too and share with them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Adjusting to the unpredictability of life as Miss Montana has been a challenge, says Wineman’s mother, Kimberley Butterworth.

“She has at times struggled,” Butterworth said. “There isn’t a set schedule, which can be very hard.”

When things get tough, Wineman relies on coping skills she’s developed through the years like listening to Celtic music on her iPod.

“With her iPod, she has been able to disengage for a minute, and plug herself into it and regroup,” Butterworth said.

When Wineman is not on the road she’s focused on preparing for the Miss America pageant by brushing up on the comedy monologue she will perform in the talent competition, exercising and eating healthy, and more often than not, walking in heels.

“I was never a girl to walk in heels, and I did not prepare. That was the hardest part,” she said.

Jan Holden, executive director of the Miss Montana Scholarship Program, thinks Wineman will have no problem at the national level.

“She’s a pretty special girl. She’s very intelligent. That girl’s got grace and poise, and she did phenomenal in her interview,” said Holden. “She’s come a long way, and it’s her doing.”

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