“My family used to tell me that I shouldn’t openly talk to other people about my autism,” says Ponnapapan “Fern” Sangwangthong, 21, whose speech about being autistic on Miss Thailand 2022 won the Internet’s hearts over the weekend. “But I want other people to know that we are here, and most importantly we want to be seen.”
On 11 Jan, Fern made history by becoming the first autistic contestant ever to be shortlisted as a top 50-candidate for Miss Thailand 2022. “I know that viral trends come and go here. But at least I can make other people see that we [autistic people] are no different from them, and we don’t need any special treatment,” Fern tells BK over the phone.
But before her moment in the spotlight, Fern admits things usually weren’t easy for her.
For nine years, Fern says she has been targeted by bullying because of her differences. She recalls being picked on, excluded, and a victim of cyberbullying, and it isn’t always about her autism.
“Even now, there are people who believe I’m here for [the fame] just because I don’t fit in with beauty standards,” Fern tells BK. “But I’m not coming here for them. I stood there on the stage because this is what I always wanted.”
When asked about her next steps, she tells BK that she will continue her role as an autism advocate even if she doesn’t make it to the final round.
“The title isn’t that important. What’s more important is that I can inspire other people like me to do the same.”
[Transcription from her speech]
“I’ve seen an autistic pageant on Miss Universe 2020, but I’ve never seen anyone with a disability like me on the stage,” said Fern during her preliminary round. “I want to make them know I’m here to represent, to show them that we can achieve our dreams, too.”