How girls are gaining confidence and changing perspectives

Beautiful, graceful and autistic.

That’s how many news reports have described Alexis Wineman, the 18-year-old trailblazer who competed in this past January’s Miss America pageant.

Wineman is using her fame to raise awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder.

But, locally, the mother of seven-year-old Liberity Brunet says participating in pageants has given her daughter — who is autistic — newfound confidence.

Liberity competed in her first competition — Calgary’s Winter Snowflake pageant —in November and is now signed up to compete in several more.

“She was able to take her crown and trophy and sashes to school and show the other kids at school, which made her proud,” says Alissia Brunet, Liberity’s mother. “It was her moment.”Participating in pagaents can be helpful to children with Autism though, some say it is not a replacement for treatment.

Photo by Allison Drinnan

That all happened after Brunet, came across an ad on Kijiji looking for participants for the “natural” pageant, one of several Miss All Canadian events that take place across the country.

At those pageants, contestants may wear dresses and make-up but “the end result should be you looking your age and you looking natural.”

“I thought let’s try it out. Let’s give it a chance,” says Brunet, who approached Liberity with the idea.

Brunet was a bit surprised at the enjoyment Liberity took in the pageant, and then by her request to participate in more.

In fact, according to Brunet, “Libby is actually a tom boy.”

But she seems to be in her element in the pageant.

At the Winter Snowflake competition, she proudly took to the mic, shouting her favourite colour and age with authority, waving excitedly at her mother.

After moving up and down the stage in her winter wears, Liberity was covered in prize sashes at the end of the event.

Brunet says the experience of speaking to an audience has been especially valuable for Liberity.

“She loves speaking on the mic. She loves to be center of attention right now, says Brunet. “She likes to speak her mind and say what she wants to say and people look at her and she likes it. She’s talked for weeks about it.”

That’s a big change from when Brunet adopted Liberity. At that time, the three-year-old Liberity couldn’t speak.

Brunet explains that the lack of language was one of the biggest challenges that Liberity faced with the disorder.

“If she was in pain or needing something, we had to look for cues,” she says. “And then overnight, words started popping out and she just got more and more talkative and things are happening easier.”

Brunet thinks that change happened for a number of reasons like Liberity’s enrollment in Quest, a school for children with special challenges and Brunet’s own one-on-one work with the child.

But Liberity’s future participation in beauty pageants could also be helpful.

Pageant of formula

Dr. David Worling is a registered psychologist and clinical director at Westcoast Child Development Group in Vancouver.

Worling acknowledged he’s not familiar with the beauty pageant system. But he says the patterns and formulas associated with pageants — could be a positive thing for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“I know a lot of kids on the autism spectrum deal pretty well with formulas so it would really be a good way to motivate a child,” says Worling.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Neurilogical disorder which causes developmental disability. 
  • Affects the way the brain functions, resulting in difficulties with communication and social interaction. 
  • Unusal patterns of behaviour, activities and interests

“Spectrum” refers to a continuum of severity of developmental impairments 

Autism facts: 

  • Refers to Autistic Disorder or used more generally to refer to Autism Spectrum Disorders. 
  • Usually appears in the first three years of life
  • Four times more common in boys than girls 
  • Occurs in about 1 in 200 people in Canada

 

Courtesey of Autism Society Canada 

 

In fact, Worling says Liberity’s autism could possibly give her an advantage over other contestants.

“Generally speaking most kids I know that are on the autism spectrum don’t have a problem speaking in front of people,” explains Worling. “Most of us are aware of our audience and we are aware of our shortcomings and we feel concern and a bit embarrassed, but often the kids that I work with on the autism spectrum don’t necessarily share those traits.”

Worling also says such beauty pageant’s could be a positive social experience for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“It’s not that they’re not nice to other kids. But often kids on the spectrum don’t necessarily have the same drive to be social as other kids,” says Worling. “This might be a good way to put it into a formula that would allow some kids to really to do that.”

This is something that Brunet is seeing in Liberity. Other kids in the pageants are polite to her and Brunet hopes that this will giver her daughter the poise that she needs and the confidence in herself.

Not a therapy

The president of the Autism Society of Canada, Michael Lewis, cautions such participation isn’t a therapy.

“It is a medical condition,” says Lewis. “It needs to be overseen by medical professionals who need to prescribe and correct the deficits and excesses that these children demonstrate and that takes all sorts of forms and it is something that you do at home, you do it at school.”

But, like other activities such as a swimming club, he says pageants could be a venue for autistic children who can speak to “utilize these newly developed skills and perhaps enhance them.”

Brunet is just as happy about the good beauty pageants are bringing to her daughter.

“We will just keep going until she doesn’t want to do it anymore.”

adrinnan@cjournal.ca