When Alexis Wineman was diagnosed with borderline Asperger Syndrome at age 11, she thought the answer to "what was wrong with me" came too late.

"I felt so alone growing up, and I still do at times," Wineman said at an autism conference hosted by Montana State University Billings.

Through years of "overwhelming and daily" challenges that included bullying from peers and bouts of self-deprecation, Wineman never stopped trying to push past her hardships.

She underwent extensive counseling, received help with schoolwork, joined speech and drama clubs, and joined the cheerleading squad, eventually overcoming her struggles with anxiety and self-consciousness.

The hard work paid off in full last year, when Wineman was crowned Miss Montana 2012.

The 18-year-old is now poised to become the first Miss America contestant to be diagnosed with autism.

"Most people do not understand what autism is," Wineman says in a promotional video for Saturday's competition. "And one in 88 people having some form of autism — this understanding is becoming more and more necessary." The youngest contestant in this year's pageant, Wineman hopes the spotlight will help her shine much needed light on her condition. Miss America will take place this Saturday in Las Vegas.

[photo via Facebook]