Beauty pageants have long been defined by perfect cookie-cutter contestants, but if this year’s Miss America Competition is any indication, times are changing. On Jan. 12, Miss Montana Alexis Wineman will make history when she vies for the crown. Wineman will become the first contestant with autism; she is also the youngest contestant in this year's line-up.

“Growing up, I never was really interested in pageants. I thought it would be something I was never able to do,” the 18-year-old from Cut Bank, Mont., told “But by the time I graduated, I kind of realized I’d done a lot of things I’d never thought I could do.”

Diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder and borderline Asperger syndrome at the age of 11, the diagnoses allowed the teen to understand her challenges and find ways to cope and break out of her comfort zone. She became a cheerleader, a member of the speech and drama teams, and a cross-country runner.

After graduating from high school, the plucky Wineman began speaking at schools and autism conventions, as well as forging partnerships with several autism groups and the special needs support group, AbilityPath.

Always pushing herself to try new things, Wineman entered the Miss Montana program to see if she’d like it. Not only did she like it, she won — paving the way to her inclusion into the group of 53 contestants hoping to be crowned Miss America.

Her platform issue, not surprisingly, will be living with autism.

Wineman’s hope is that someday autism will be considered just another character trait, rather than something laden with stigma. “I just wish people would just accept people with autism more instead of pushing them off into a corner and trying to forget that they’re there … I just want to make these two worlds understand each other.”

“Growing up, all I wanted was to be normal. I just wanted to fit in with everyone else,” she said. “Looking back, I realized it was a waste of time, because normal doesn’t exist. If we could just accept people for their differences, it will make life for our children and for ourselves much, much easier.”

See her in the video below, and learn how you can vote online.

Related Miss America story on MNN: Miss D.C.: Breast surgery will save my life

Miss America makes history with first autistic contestant
The remarkable Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, is not only the pageant's youngest entrant this year, she is also the first-ever contestant who lives with autism.