She isn’t letting anything hold her back.

Rachel Barcellona, a junior at the University of South Florida, and a resident of Tampa Bay is set to make history as the first contestant with autism to compete in Miss Florida [1]. She was 3 years old when her parents found out she was on the autism spectrum.

“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,” Rachel said.

This didn’t sit well with her or her family. Her mother, a nurse practitioner, was determined to make sure her daughter felt supported and was successful [2].

“She was like I will be dead before that happens. So I wouldn’t be anywhere without my mom who is a nurse practitioner and she is just wonderful, I love her,” said Barcellona.

She has competed in pageants on and off since she was 5, and she admits that it has helped her with her social skills, as she wasn’t always confident.

“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.

Beacon of light

In April, Barcellona was selected to speak at the United Nations for World Autism Day. Her objective, she said, was to encourage others on the spectrum [3].

“I am bringing a message of hope,” she said. “That is what I have always done. Even if you have a disability of any kind, it should not stop you from achieving your dreams.” She continued, “We have been saddled with this bad portrayal with autistic people are very smart, they’re geniuses, or they’re stupid, they’re obsessive. Those portrayals don’t show the reality.”

Above else, Barcelona has a message for the judges:

“Usually they bring up my disability. So I would say it doesn’t affect me negatively and I am very capable of inspiring people and holding a title,” said Barcellona. “I would say that pageantry is also a 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.”

The preliminary rounds of the Miss Florida competition will be held in Lakeland from June 25 to 27, with the finals on June 29.

More on Barcellona

Rachel was named an ambassador for Unicorn Children’s Foundation, which is a non-profit organization helping children and young adults with developmental, communication and learning disorders. She is a spokesperson for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of South Florida and also is on their advocacy board [4].

Rachel is also an opera singer.


  1. Tampa Bay woman will be first contestant with autism to compete in Miss Florida“, News Channel 8. June, 2019
  2. A contestant with autism will make history in the Miss Florida pageant“, CNN. June, 2019.
  3. Tampa woman to be the first contestant with autism in Miss Florida pageant“, Fox 13 News. June, 2019.
  4. Woman to make history as first contestant with autism to compete for Miss Florida crown“, AOL. June, 2019.
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