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Student finds niche with geography

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Mackenzie Burton received her first globe at age 3. She took it off the base and slept with it.

That love paid off this month when the Northside Middle School seventh-grader placed in the top 10 in the Indiana Geographic Bee.

Mackenzie received perfect scores in the preliminary round and finished the tournament as the top female scorer. She placed eighth overall.

“I’ve always been curious about geography,” she said.

When watching news coverage of the unrest in Ukraine, she thinks, “OK, Mom, it’s time for a new globe.”

Mackenzie was one of 100 fourth- through eighth-graders to compete at IUPUI in Indianapolis on April 4 — an appropriate date for Mackenzie’s accomplishment.

April is Autism Awareness Month, and Mackenzie was diagnosed with the disorder when she was 2½ years old.

Autism is a disorder of brain development characterized by various degrees of difficulties in social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication and in repetitive behaviors.

It was those symptoms that had Mackenzie’s mother, Missy Burton, on the edge of her seat during the tournament.

“I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “I had to leave the room.”

Burton was sure her daughter knew all the answers — she had been preparing for the bee pretty much since birth — but she wasn’t sure about the tournament etiquette.

But Mackenzie waited her turn to answer and sat on the stage with poise. Her friends, teachers and administrators at Northside helped her with those skills.

Burton said it helps that Mackenzie has been placed in mainstream classrooms since she started with Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Instead of being pulled out of class to attend special education classes, Mackenzie learns with her peers.

Linda Toppe, a special education teacher at Northside Middle School, works with Mackenzie in that setting.

Mackenzie described Toppe as “crazy,” explaining a time when Toppe told her it looked like someone had thrown up papers in her desk, instead of saying it was messy.

Burton called her helpful.

She was one of many at the school who had dressed up as characters from “Despicable Me” — Mackenzie’s favorite movie — to support her at the tournament. They also sang a song from the movie, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, and quizzed her on geography facts.

Toppe, who traveled to Indianapolis for the tournament, said she uses a lot of humor to work with Mackenzie.

“She has a really great mind; it’s hard to keep ahead of her,” she said. “She’s a joy to have at Northside.”

Burton said Mackenzie has adapted well to middle school with the help of Toppe and others.

Friends gathered around Mackenzie when they discovered she had won the school’s geography bee and qualified for the state competition.

“They were very impressed with her intelligence,” Burton said. “She has a lot of good friends at Northside; they’re very accepting.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Mackenzie at school, though.

Last year she got in trouble for making fun of another student. She was having trouble filtering her thoughts in social situations, a characteristic of autism.

But she said she’s better this year because she has a new role model: Margo Gru from “Despicable Me,” a character who grew up in an orphanage.

“She has it a whole lot worse than just serving detention,” Mackenzie said. “I picture her comforting me.”

Mackenzie wants to make her own animated films when she graduates — a career where she can create role models for children just like herself.

Burton said she is thankful Mackenzie’s peers and teachers have been so accepting of her and her autism.

She pulled out a poem she found on YouTube: “My autism is what makes me me,” she read. “It may be responsible for my weaknesses, but it is also responsible for my strengths.”

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