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For a kid with autism, Jacob Barnett did a lot of communicating over the last two years. The 14-year-old Hamilton County boy (IQ 170) became history’s youngest published astrophysics researcher, spoke at a TEDx conference in New York, and appeared on 60 Minutes and on Time magazine’s website. All of this from a child who, a few years ago, was expected to have trouble ever tying his own shoes.
A lot of the credit goes to his mother, Kristine Barnett, who discovered a novel way to bring him out of his shell. This month, Random House will release The Spark, her memoir about raising Jacob. And while the boy’s story is extraordinary, Kristine feels it holds important lessons for all parents. “It’s really not just a story about a child genius,” she says. “What I learned in helping Jacob applies to all children. He faced a lot of problems early in life, and our tendency is to spend all our time trying to fix those. So it was very controversial for me to spend so much time working with him on the things he was passionate about—the puzzles he could solve so quickly, the piano-playing. Those had always been in the background of the things he couldn’t do.”
Jacob ultimately thrived and now tutors and does physics research at IUPUI, allowing Kristine to run a daycare. But in the following excerpt from The Spark, that happy ending was by no means a foregone conclusion. If the heartwrenching scenes remind you of something from a movie, you might be on to something—Warner Bros. has optioned the book for a film. That can only help the international book tour that’s about to whisk the family away to Europe, where Jacob is looking forward to visiting the Large Hadron Collider outside of Geneva. By July, however, his mom hopes the publicity will be behind them.
“My goal for the summer is just to give him a few weeks off,” she says. “The last time he had that was when he came up with the alternative theory to the Big Bang. So who knows what he’ll create?” —Daniel S. Comiskey
[EXCERPT: THE SPARK]
JAKE, AGE THREE
“Mrs. Barnett, I’d like to talk to you about the alphabet cards you’ve been sending to school with Jacob.”
Jake and I were sitting with his special ed teacher in our living room during her monthly, state-mandated visit to our home. He loved those brightly colored flash cards more than anything in the world, as attached to them as other children were to love-worn teddy bears or threadbare security blankets. The cards were sold at the front of the SuperTarget where I did my shopping. Other children snuck boxes of cereal or candy bars into their mothers’ shopping carts, while the only items that ever mysteriously appeared in mine were yet more packs of Jake’s favorite alphabet cards.
“Oh, I don’t send the cards; Jake grabs them on his way out the door. I have to pry them out of his hands to get his shirt on. He even takes them to bed with him!”
Jake’s teacher shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “I wonder if you might need to adjust your expectations for Jacob, Mrs. Barnett. Ours is a life skills program. We’re focusing on things like helping him learn to get dressed by himself someday.” Her voice was gentle, but she was determined to be clear.
“Oh, of course, I know that. We’re working on those skills at home, too. But he just loves his cards . . .”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Barnett. What I’m saying is that we don’t think you’re going to need to worry about the alphabet with Jacob.”
Finally—finally—I understood what my son’s teacher had been trying to tell me. She wanted to protect me, to make sure I was clear on the objectives of a life skills program. She wasn’t saying that alphabet flash cards were premature. She was saying we wouldn’t ever have to worry about the alphabet with Jake, because they didn’t think he’d ever read.
It was a devastating moment, in a year that had been full of them. Jake had recently been diagnosed with autism, and I had finally come to understand that all bets were off as to when (or whether) Jake would reach any of the normal childhood developmental milestones.
Ironically, I wasn’t hopeful that Jake would ever read, but neither was I prepared to let anyone set a ceiling for what we could expect from him, especially one so low. That morning, it felt as if Jake’s teacher had slammed a door on his future.
For a parent, it’s terrifying to fly against the advice of the professionals, but I knew in my heart that if Jake stayed in special ed, he would slip away. So I decided to trust my instincts and embrace hope instead of abandoning it. I wouldn’t spend any time or energy fighting to convince the teachers and therapists at his school to change their expectations or their methods. I didn’t want to struggle against the system or impose what I felt was right for Jake on others. Rather than hiring lawyers and experts and advocates to get Jake the services he needed, I would invest directly in Jake and do whatever I felt was necessary to help him reach his full potential—whatever that might be.
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