When Rachel Barcellona was young, she received a devastating diagnosis: She had autism, and her family was told she would likely never graduate from any school, nor make friends. Now, WFLA details a big event coming up for the 22-year-old University of South Florida student: the Miss Florida beauty pageant, which Barcellona will be competing in later this month in Lakeland. She'll be the pageant's first contestant with autism, and she says it was her mom who first put it in her head that no disability should define her. "She was like, 'I will be dead before that happens,'" says Barcellona, who adds she started performing in beauty pageants when she was just 5. She quit around fourth grade, but when she started suffering from anxiety and depression in middle school, she went back to her old passion.
"That is when I really got into it because it helped me make friends and build my confidence," she says. Newsweek runs through some of Barcellona's accomplishments and talents, including singing opera (she's performed at NYC's Madison Square Garden three times), working with kids at Tampa's Glazer Children's Museum, and serving as an advocate for autism awareness. Now, her eye is on the prize in Lakeland. "I am very capable of inspiring people and holding a title," Barcellona tells WFLA. "I would say that pageantry is also spectrum. You have to find the right ones for you." (Read more autism stories.)