Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, 18, the youngest of the 53 women vying for the title of Miss America in Las Vegas on Saturday, is the first contestant with autism.
Wineman was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified) at 11 years old. According to the Autism Speaks website, someone with PDD-NOS "has some but not all characteristics of autism or ... has relatively mild symptoms."
The auburn-haired beauty was ashamed of her disorder and says she was verbally bullied in middle school. "I was called a 'retard' and [was told] that I wasn't worth the breath I was breathing," she said. "It was really hurtful stuff."
This inability to fully decipher the world around them often makes education stressful for the autistic child, and teachers often report that they find it difficult to meet the needs of students on the autism spectrum.
Early intervention does make a significant difference in maximizing a child's chances of integrating with a non-autistic world when they reach adulthood. A nurturing environment at home, at school, and later in job training and at work, helps autistic people continue to learn and to develop throughout their lives.
Many intellectually gifted children are being denied opportunities because they are being labeled high functioning autism. These children often have high IQ. Before people knew about Autism, these children would have received a very positive label of intellectually gifted.
To their detriment, the American education system concentrates on the middle of the educational bell curve, where children reach proficiency rather than excellence, wasting the talent of the most diverse and critical thinkers from both ends of the curve.
The best way to teach all children (gifted and with disabilities) is by recognizing and nurturing the neurological diversity of students across the learning spectrum. We need to challenge the narrow definition of what it means to have gifts and talents.
Wired magazine discussed the link between autism and engineer and computer programming. The incidence of autism has increased in the children of technology company employees. A little bit of autism genes may provide an intellectual advantage and too much of the genetic may cause a severe case of autism.
Teachers should not ask, how smart is this kid? Instead, they should ask, how is this kid smart?