It’s been almost a year since I was crowned Miss Montana, and what an amazing journey it’s been. Being the first Miss America contestant on the autism spectrum definitely helped bring attention to my platform: “Normal is Just a Dryer Setting: Living with Autism.” But as I reflect upon the year, what’s really left an impact on me is the acceptance and support I encountered and continue to experience. For many of us on the spectrum, that’s what we hope April brings: acceptance.
Being named America’s Choice at Miss America this last January is one of the most memorable moments of my life. [Ed. Note: “America’s Choice” goes to the contestant with the most viewer votes during a national online competition.] It was a validation of sorts, for me and every other person who might not consider themselves “normal.” I was shocked America selected the girl who plays video games and was considered an outcast most of her life. After the pageant, many said they voted for me because they related to me. Wow. How amazing is that, considering I’ve struggled to relate to people all my life.
Plus: I am 1 in 50
I actually grew up not liking pageants. I realize now that’s because I thought a girl like me couldn’t be one of “those girls.” After spending two weeks with “those girls” I am proud to be one of them. Whether you’re a pageant fan or not, my participation in Miss America was a huge step forward in the autism acceptance movement. It’s not about me—it’s about the inclusion of someone like me.
Keep in mind: I’m not the girl I was 10 years ago. Back then, friendship came in the form of my reliable Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal. I was withdrawn and found interacting with people extremely difficult. Basic school activities—like writing on a paper with a pencil—were tough; the sound the graphite made when rubbed on the paper was painful to me. My speech was unintelligible, which made talking to anyone impossible. I had a label: Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). All this fueled bullies in middle school. Those were probably my most difficult years.
I could have given up and let the label define me but I decided to defy the odds. This revelation came with the help of my tremendously supportive family, particularly my siblings. They dragged me everywhere with them. They pushed me into speech, drama, cross-country running and even cheerleading. Having people who believed in me is what transformed my life.
When others accepted me for me, I began to accept myself. I’m fortunate to have found my voice, and I’m dedicated to a life of being proud and standing loud for those who have yet to find theirs.