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The Spark

A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius

Kristine Barnett

(London Times)

This is a book about an autistic child and his mother. What makes it extraordinary is that, aged 11, Jacob Barnett was enrolled at university; last summer, aged 13, he was appointed to a research post at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; his research has been published in a prestigious academic journal and he’s studying for a Master’s degree in quantum physics.

Jacob’s Ted lecture can be seen on YouTube and he’s been featured in Time magazine. An internationally renowned astrophysicist told his parents that the physics Jacob was working on — an extension of Einstein’s theory of ­relativity — could one day gain him a Nobel prize. Yet, when Jacob was two, his mother, Kristine Barnett, the author of this book, was told he would never read.

The Spark opens in 2001, with Jacob’s special educational-needs teacher gently suggesting that Kristine stop sending him to school with his beloved alphabet cards, and that she lower her expectations for her son. He might one day be able to tie his own shoelaces, but reading was unlikely. Aged two, he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and, as many autistic children do, had stopped talking.

A less confident mother might have crumpled. Luckily for Jacob (IQ 170), Kristine was not that kind of person. When he was three she took him out of the special-needs nursery where he was becoming more and more isolated and decided to teach him herself, having read the research that suggests that “the best window for reaching an autistic child is before they turn five”. She decided to focus on what he could do — his passions, his “spark” — rather than what he couldn’t. Slowly his speech progressed and, by the age of four, he’d memorised a driving atlas and could direct his family from Indianapolis to Chicago.

The turning point came in 2002. Noticing that he had become fixated on a book about astronomy, Barnett took Jacob to the local planetarium where he answered complex questions about gravity. She enrolled him at the local university, where professors swiftly recognised his astonishing abilities in maths and physics, and the way he could visualise complex shapes and patterns as a matter of course. Jake blossomed.

This is not a story of hot-housing a child prodigy. Far from being a pushy academic-minded mum, Barnett and her husband Mike are blue-collar working class. When Jake tells her what he is learning — “tell it to me as though I’m a cheeseburger, Jake,” she begs — she admits that her brain hurts. But she never tries to curb his behaviour, no matter how peculiar.

To help both Jake and other children, Barnett set up an evening programme of care for autistic kids. She called it Little Light and its aim was to get the youngsters into mainstream schools. Just as she had done with Jake, she focused on each child’s passions. And the approach apparently worked. Not only did Jake go to college, his classmates got to their schools. Barnett and her husband now run a charitable community centre called Jacob’s Place.

With Jake there was no one sudden breakthrough. There were hours and hours of therapy combined with an insistence that he be allowed to play. But occasional magical moments are recounted, such as the evening he reached out after showing no affection to anyone for months, hugged his mother goodnight and said, “Night night, baby bagel” in an imitation of his mother’s “Night night, my angel”.

Nor does Barnett gloss over the dark episodes: her stroke aged 30, the fact that the family went hungry during the recession, the overwhelming media attention the family received when Jake’s gift became public knowledge. (Barnett singles out the day a couple of tabloid reporters from London tried to break into the family’s basement.) Even now, with Jake feted and successful, doubts about his future remain. “Jake is still autistic…his autism is something he overcomes every day,” writes Barnett. But essentially this is a story of triumph against the odds and it’s one Barnett insists that other parents can learn from.

“I wrote this book because I believe Jake’s story is emblematic… If you fuel a child’s innate spark, it will always point the way to far greater heights than you could ever have imagined.” It’s a timely and important message, dramatically told. But there remains a danger in the book’s insistence that unconditional love and endless patience can unlock autistic children’s talents and release them from the world of silence to which so many retreat. Many who try Barnett’s methods will not get the same results. Will they then feel like failures?

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