Autism's top model

Cris Italia

She’ll tell you it was no problem at all and whether she believes it or not, Heather Kuzmich’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 12 contributed to what was a surprisingly large fan base, during the 2008 season of America’s Next Top Model. She was the oddball, the loner, the contestant that from day one of the competition was different from everyone else.

“She’s just so beautiful and has a really cool personality,” says Joanne Mathis, 16, a self-described fanatic of the show. Out of the 13 women who started the season together, Kuzmich made it to the top five. Each week, show creator Tyra Banks and a panel of judges decide who gets to stay. The week Kuzmich was eliminated, thousands of fans rallied on the Internet, posting on message boards, making tribute videos on YouTube and even starting an online petition to have producers of the show reconsider her elimination.

“I wasn’t expecting anything like that,” Kuzmich says of the support. “I was actually kind of expecting to annoy a lot of people. I never really expected to have that kind of outpouring of support.”

Some fans say it was Kuzmich’s courage and honesty that won them over immediately. “I’ve been watching America’s Next Top Model from the first season and she is by far my favorite model,” says Samantha Sawyer, 22, of Jacksonville, Fla. “I really didn’t know what Asperger’s syndrome was, but after she talked about it on the show I read up on it. There was a moment where I felt bad for her, but that wasn’t why I was pulling for her. It was more like, I know what it’s like not to be accepted, and I think a lot of her fans relate to that.”

For the first time in her life, Kuzmich isn’t an outsider anymore. She is in demand and loved by thousands. It was a lot different than growing up in Valpriasio, Ind., where she often found herself playing alone. At 18 months old, Kuzmich’s mother, Penny, says that her daughter was speech delayed and had to be put in a program that would enable her to learn at a slower pace. For years she struggled to figure out why she was different from everyone else. It would be more than a decade before Kuzmich would receive the diagnosis of Asperger’s.

“I remember a therapist asking me a lot of questions, and when it was over I was told that I had this condition,” she says. It was a very difficult time for Kuzmich. Her diagnosis came shortly after the passing of her father. She also admits that his death and her disorder were putting a strain on her relationship with her mother. “I was taken aback with why my mother wanted me to get this diagnosis, like why now?

“You really don’t know how to treat this condition, since there is so little known about it,” she says. “I relied mostly on my family and the people who wanted to help me out. Even now when I get asked I really don’t explain it much. I just tell them it’s a mild form of autism and that we’re wired differently.”

For her mom, Asperger’s was also hard to understand. “I’d go to conferences and take her with me sometimes,” Penny Kuzmich says. “She was a very sweet kid. She had very little impulse control, but it’s been a progression over the years.”

Throughout Heather’s childhood, Penny just couldn’t put her finger on it. There were instances of strange behavior, like the time she was punished and sent to her room. After 15 minutes, she went to check on her daughter only to find that she had climbed out the window and was gone for quite a while. “It was like a ‘no fear’ thing with her,” she says. Penny also remembers setting up play-dates, and her daughter would separate herself from everyone. “The reality was she wanted friends. She needed friends, but she’d rather sit home and watch TV or do something on the computer.” She also remembers classmates not understanding her daughter. She would get into fights at a local Boys and Girls Club. But there were also some amazing gifts.

“She’d win different awards for costume designing every year,” she says, beaming proudly. “She was very, very creative. There were always ideas in her head, and she was able to stitch something up and make something out of nowhere that looked amazing. She definitely had a natural ability.”

The diagnosis of Asperger’s provided answers for Kuzmich’s mom. “You can’t fix it till you know what it is,” Penny says. “I had taken a class a year after her diagnosis. For me it answered a lot of questions.”

For Kuzmich it answered very little. She was still an outsider, rejected from peers. Penny says it got so bad one night they both knelt down and prayed for a friend. Within weeks a new family moved into the neighborhood. There was a girl who was about the same age, and Heather’s prayers were answered.

Penny was surprised when her daughter approached her about the idea of auditioning for America’s Next Top Model, but she wasn’t going to stand in her way either. “I didn’t know if she was ready for something like that, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell her she couldn’t do it,” she says. “I was so happy that she was making a decision like this it kind of overshadowed everything else.”

Courtesy of Spectrum Publications

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