Autism awareness is spreading throughout The Miss America Pageant! This week we talked to Alexis Wineman, an individual on the spectrum who was Miss Montana 2012 and Sheridan Pope, Miss Montana 2013 who has a sister on the autism spectrum; about their personal connections to autism and what they are doing today!
How has life changed for you since the Miss America Pageant?
Sheridan: My life has really turned upside down. It’s truly been the best, most eye-opening experience. Meeting so many women across the country has been so inspiring to me. It really has given me an open door to start discussions about autism and disabilities. I’ve gained a ton of communication skills along this journey. With my crown I understand there are a lot of people that will look up to me, so I try to live my life in the most positive way I can. (Granted, I’m still the biggest goofball at times!)
Alexis: Well, I don’t get to wear a crown anymore. I miss being Miss Montana, but I don’t at the same time. It’s hard to explain. Miss Montana was very hard for me to do. It wasn’t something I would have normally done. But now that I’ve done that, I think I can do anything I want! Before, I doubted I could do things like go to college. Now that I’ve done Miss Montana, I know I can be what I want to be.
So Alexis, tell us how you met Sheridan. Did you give her any advice going into the pageant as the reigning Miss Montana?
We didn’t know each other until Miss Montana week. She was hilarious, sweet and one of the most adorable women I’ve ever met. The main advice I gave her was to keep her head on straight. It’s going to be a very stressful year. I also made sure she knew to contact me if she had any questions. I also told her to have fun and enjoy it!
How was it to be crowned by Alexis Wineman? Did you know of her story beforehand?
Yes, I actually competed in Miss Montana's Oustanding Teen program in 2008 and I faced Alexis’s twin sister Amanda. That’s when I got to know a little bit about her back-story. It was a sincere honor to be crowned by her.
So Sheridan, how did you decide on your platform, “Possibilities for Disabilities: Inclusion Education"?
Growing up, I saw a lot of problems in the educational system. Granted, I grew up 15 years ago just starting school in a rural small town. My sister has autism and she had experienced a lot of difficulties in school. We’d both ride the special needs school bus. All the special needs aids would wear gloves because they thought they might catch her autism. It was nuts. I was in 1st or 2nd grade when this happened. People were not understanding of my sister. They weren’t understanding of her autism and I wanted to do right by my sister and help make everyone feel like they were included in the schools, disability or not.
Alexis, we just heard you got accepted into college! That’s amazing! How has the transition been for you so far?
College has been great. I’m currently attending Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s kind of a funny story. It’s a full tuition scholarship. My twin sister Amanda goes here. She got the same scholarship. When she did the Distinguished Young Women program, she insisted that I do the same. I LOVE college. Classes are difficult but not too bad. I am doing surprisingly well living in the dorms and meeting people has been super easy so far.
Sheridan, there’s so much talk about the impact siblings can have in our community. Are there any words of advice you would give to a sibling of someone on the spectrum?
This is a great question. I think one of the things I would share with other siblings is that Alexis Wineman gives inspiration to so many as an individual on the spectrum. Following Alexis allows me to give a sense into autism from my experiences with my older sister. You know, sometimes it’s tough being a sibling. Growing up, with things like medical bills and tough behaviors, it limits doing things like family trips and vacations. Back then, we also didn’t have therapies like ABA. My favorite thing I like to tell people is to be proud of who they are and who their family is. You will go on to use these experiences to make you a better person and to mold yourself. Mainly, be proud of who you are and always be accepting.
Alexis, you’ve accomplished so much. Are there any words of advice you have for individuals with autism that want to advocate for themselves?
I’ve noticed that people who support autism do it in many different ways. One of the big things I can say is don’t freak out when someone disagrees with you. This is very important for self-advocates. Just ignore what those people say and try to be the best you. We all can do things. My parents were the only ones who told me that I could go out there and do something growing up. Now with the pageant, all of America knows I can. It’s been one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
What do you have coming up next?
Alexis: Next week I’m going back to Montana. I’ll be working with the Thrive program up there. They have asked me to speak at their conference so I’m excited about that. There will be more things to come, so stay tuned to my Facebook Fan Page for more information!
Sheridan: Mainly, continuing my school tour as Miss Montana. I try to make things different every time I go. I really try to make it conversational so each school I go to ends up being a unique experience. Also, I am going to a Justin Timberlake concert next week! I loved NSYNC as a kid so I know that’s going to be fun!