First contestant with autism to compete in Miss Florida

TAMPA, Fl. (WFLA/CNN) - One of the duties of a pageant winner is to try to inspire others.

College student Rachel Barcellona has been doing that most of her life, and she's about to go for the Miss Florida crown as the first contestant with autism.

"There's this negative stigma that we are these special creatures that have to be treated carefully, but that is not true," Barcellona said.

Cultivating confidence and self-esteem is something that took time for her, she said.

"I was basically promised that I would never graduate any school really or have any friends," Barcellona said.

That type of feedback didn't sit well with her or her family, especially her mother.

"She was like, 'I will be dead before that happens.' So I wouldn't be anywhere without the help of my mom, who is a nurse practitioner, and she is just wonderful," Barcellona said.

Barcellona started strutting across the big stage when she was 5 years old. She waved and competed until fourth grade and then took a break.

"I had depression and anxiety in middle school, so then I resumed when I was 13," Barcellona said. "And that's when I really got into it, because it helped me make friends and build my confidence."

She is now confidently preparing for the pageant later this month. She has her dresses picked out, and her operatic voice is ready for the talent portion.

Above all else, she has a message for the judges.

"Usually they bring up my disability, so I would say it doesn't affect me negatively and that I am very capable of inspiring people and holding a title," Barcellona said.

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