She's a Top Model—and Autistic

updated 10/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Competing on the new season of America's Next Top Model, Heather Kuzmich has sported everything from metallic shorts and silver sandals to a straitjacket. But it's with a less flashy article of clothing that she has made her boldest statement. "She bought herself a shirt," says her sister Robyn, "that reads, 'I'm in my own little world. Don't worry—people know me here.'"

The playful but cryptic message belies what has, at times, been a painful reality for the 21-year-old Kuzmich, a native of Valparaiso, Ind. Diagnosed as a teenager with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that impairs social interaction and emotional development, Kuzmich has trouble understanding others, misreads social signals and is uncomfortable making eye contact. Teased mercilessly throughout her youth for what came across as odd behavior, Kuzmich "was rarely invited to sleepovers or birthday parties," says her mother, Penny, 58. "There was so much persecution."

No wonder then that Kuzmich's family sees the aspiring model's TV stint as "her redemption time," as Penny puts it. Although early episodes revealed a few Top Model costars to be unkind about her condition—her awkwardness was criticized in one memorable exchange—Kuzmich (who is not allowed to give interviews until the show's finale airs) vowed to the cameras, "This is going to be the thing that makes me stronger."

Since then, the on-set attitude toward her has softened, and Kuzmich can be found recuperating from the show's photo shoots by drawing. (She's a student at the Illinois Institute of Art—Chicago.) "I was concerned about how cutthroat the show would be," says her therapist Gary Secrest. "But she knows how to take care of herself."

And that she has a chance to send an inspiring message about autism. Says Penny: "She wants to show that Asperger's doesn't define her."

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