Despite autism, cerebral palsy, girl wins local spelling bee



Scripps Howard News Service

KNOXVILLE, Tenn -- The word: Humility.

Nine-year-old Meghan McCarty, looked out from the stage, took a deep breath, raised her right hand and quickly but deliberately spelled it -- letter perfect.

And with the eruption of cheers from her schoolmates in the auditorium at Dogwood Elementary School in Knoxville, Meghan earned a spot in the Southern Appalachia Regional Spelling Bee in March.

To her parents and friends, it was one more milestone for the girl her mother, Tiffiany McCarty, calls "a miracle."

Born premature because of preeclampsia, Meghan has mild cerebral palsy and mild to moderate autism. Though she's in a mainstream class at Dogwood, she receives resource help and speech, physical and occupational therapy in and outside school

She wears braces on her legs (decorated with purple butterflies) and still struggles with handwriting, using an iPad or other devices to complete written schoolwork.

Meghan, who's always been good with letters and could recognize words at age 2, said she wasn't surprised she'd won. She'd applied herself, practicing words since last year's bee, when she came in third place.

In fact, organizers of the regional bee are looking at how to accommodate her during the written portion of the bee, without giving her an advantage over other contestants.

"We have had special needs students advance to the regional bee before," mostly deaf and hard-of-hearing, said Angie Howell, Knoxville News Sentinel senior marketing manager.

"I feel confident that we will be able to accommodate her."

Meghan thrives on the support of her classmates, who help her when she stumbles and are excited about her victory.

"They say it takes a village, and really, it does," her mother said of Dogwood. "That school has instilled in those kids a huge sense of community."

Tellingly, Meghan doesn't put limits on herself: "I'm not disabled."

Her father, Dan McCarty, and mother try not to limit her, either. Last year, Meghan insisted on taking baton lessons, though she found her motor skills weren't quite up to the challenge. Now she's in a hip-hop dance class.

Neither plays into her ultimate ambition: to be a pharmacist and a lawyer who specializes in exposing drugs with harmful side effects. Already she's memorized the specifics of thousands of prescription medications.

"There's so many things they told us she wouldn't ever be able to do," like walk unassisted or be mainstreamed in school, Tiffiany McCarty said. "She's pretty amazing for all she's had to overcome."

(Contact Kristi L. Nelson of the Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee at

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