01/11/2013 at 04:40 PM EST
Seven years ago, a bubbly and emotional Montana girl received news that her brain functioned differently than others: She was diagnosed with autism. On Saturday, that same girl could be crowed the new Miss America.
Alexis Wineman, 18, is the youngest of the 53 women vying for the title of Miss America in Las Vegas on Saturday. But Wineman hasn't always lived a life of glamour, having been diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified) at 11 years old. According to the Autism Speaks website
, someone with PDD-NOS "has some but not all characteristics of autism or ... has relatively mild symptoms."
"Growing up it was really hard because I didn't know what was different about me," she told PEOPLE in a recent interview. "One minute I would be really happy and another minute I'd be screaming my head off and I wouldn't know why. The smallest things could set me off."
Having very few friends, the auburn-haired beauty was ashamed of her disorder and says she was verbally bullied in middle school.
"I was called a 'retard' and [was told] that I wasn't worth the breath I was breathing," she said. "It was really hurtful stuff."
In high school, though, the bullying subsided. Wineman was able to make genuine friends and accept that fact that she has autism, something she said she previously pushed out of her mind. Eventually, Wineman made the decision to make a go at pageant life.
"At one point I was living from one meltdown to the other and I was afraid it was going to happen again, but it hasn't," she said. "If I wasn't ready for this I wouldn't be here right now."
If crowned on Saturday, it would be a dream come true for Wineman whose platform message is "Normal Is Just a Dryer Setting."
"I have this amazing opportunity to show the world that autism is not a death sentence, but a life adventure," she said. "Autism doesn't define me. I define it."
The 92nd Miss America Competition airs live Saturday on ABC from Las Vegas's Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino.