From the bottom of the ocean
To the mountains on the moon
Won’t you please come to Chicago
No one else can take your place
-Graham Nash, “Chicago”
* * *
The first autistic Miss America contestant is a cheerful 19-year-old with heart-breaking beauty and a refreshing message. She celebrates her autism, telling reporters and talk show hosts that “Being on the spectrum is not a death sentence, but a life adventure, and one that I realize has been given to me for a reason,” and “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. People need to understand.”
She once told Jeff Probst “There is nothing wrong with being autistic,” and “My autism doesn’t define who I am, I define my autism.”
So why has Alexis Wineman accepted Jenny McCarthy’s invitation to join a “celebrity panel” at a notorious anti-vaccine conference, breaking gluten-free bread with people who compare autism to a death sentence, and something to be despised? One possible answer can be found in her interview published on Disability Scoop last October:
‘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,’ she told the site.
Here’s what Alexis posted on her Facebook page in January, after receiving a phone call from McCarthy:
Could it be that Alexis is following mean girl McCarthy into the lavatory for a humiliating makeover? Does she literally believe that autistic children can be “rescued” with bleach enemas, chelation, and chemical castration, all of which are “treatments” promoted by other invited speakers the AutismOne conference?
Wineman grew up in Cut Bank, Montana, one square mile of treeless plain and 2,800 hopeful souls. After second grade, Alexis’s twin sister, Amanda skipped ahead into fourth, but not Alexis. “That’s enough to make anyone feel dumb. But I got called “retarded” a lot. I really hate that word,” Alexis told Glamour Magazine. Her behavior deteriorated.
“The meltdowns lasted hours and became more frequent,” says her mother, Kim Butterworth. “We’d have to grab and hold her; she’d be as stiff as a board. It was scary. And she started melting down at school. I’d get the call: ‘We’re having a problem.'”
At age 11 she was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, after the family consulted their pastor and a therapist. “I felt so alone growing up, and I still do at times,” she told a conference on autism at the Montana State University Billings last fall. “Nobody understood what I was going through. I separated myself from my classmates and spent most of my time alone. I stayed quiet to hide my speech problems. Due to these overwhelming and daily struggles, I looked at myself as a punching bag for others, and a burden to my family.”
Her turnaround came in high school, where Alexis ran cross country, joined the drama club, and became a cheerleader. At 18, she entered the Miss Montana contest and won.
Alexis wears her celebrity well. “We cannot cure what is not a sickness,” Miss Montana said in the video shown at the pageant. “But we can begin to understand autism, and help those with the condition to unlock the potential that lies within all of us.”
McCarthy and her business partners disagree. The AutismOne conference is a veritable trade show of unproven and questionable autism “cures”, where the hiss of hyperbaric oxygen chambers lures the credulous, and Mr. Andrew Wakefield tells starry-eyed mothers that “recovery is possible.”
So why did McCarthy reach out to Alexis? Could the invitation be part of McCarthy’s 12-step anger recovery program? The nursing school drop out and ex-MTV host is desperate to shed her anti-vaccine past, which means dissing the “angry mob” she once bragged about. She told the AP in January that she hasn’t publicly commented on vaccines in four years (it was more like two years, but oh well). Her 2011 AutismOne keynote address barely mentioned vaccines. In her 2012 speech, she was introduced by a plaintiff’s attorney who told parents “the claim that mercury doesn’t cause autism is a lie,” but McCarthy herself stayed away from the V word. Meanwhile, when she speaks of Generation Rescue (“my foundation!”), she stresses assistance to parents.
All of which raises (not begs) a serious question: Is the anti-vaccine movement growing up? Can the acceptance-and-accommodation virus find willing hosts in McCarthy’s mob? Can Alexis Wineman from Cut Bank, Montana, attract enough autism parents, and generate enough buzz, to turn Generation Rescue into a responsible and respected advocacy group?
Does McCarthy need Miss Montana?
Or is McCarthy’s invitation as cynical as inviting Al Sharpton to a Sons of the Confederacy conference? Not that Sharpton would accept.