Woman to become first contestant with autism to participate in Miss Florida pageant
© WFLA

A Florida college student is set to become the first woman with autism to compete in the Miss Florida pageant later this month.

Rachel Barcellona, a junior at the University of South Florida who began participating in pageants when she was five, is preparing to compete in the 2019 Miss Florida preliminary competition on June 25, according to NBC affiliate WFLA

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Barcellona told the news station that she's been challenging perceptions of autism all her life, noting that "I was basically promised that I would never graduate any school, really, or have any friends."

"Pretty much everything bad was going to happen to me because I have autism,” Barcellona said, describing the feedback she received when she was younger. 

But Barcellona said that she began participating in pageants when she was five and that she continued participating in them until she reached fourth grade.

“I had depression and anxiety in middle school so then I resumed when I was thirteen and that is when I really got into it because it helped me make friends and build my confidence,” Barcellona said. 

The 22-year-old noted that pageant judges usually address her disability, but that it "doesn’t affect me negatively." 

"I am very capable of inspiring people and holding a title,” Barcellona said. “I would say that pageantry is also spectrum. You have to find the right ones for you. And just go from there because it can really, really make a girl more confident and empower her to be an amazing woman."

Barcellona wrote on the Dyspraxia Foundation USA website that she has Asperger’s syndrome and that she often felt like she couldn't do "anything" because of it. 

"People with disabilities or anyone who is different are often targets for bullies as I was, but because of my life and social experience, I have overcome many challenges," Barcellona said, noting the various things she has done to advocate for people with disabilities. 

The Miss Florida preliminary competition will take place between June 25 and June 27. The finals will be held on June 29.