You may have heard of Jake Barnett, the autistic boy-genius from Indiana who began taking college courses in astrophysics at age eight, became a paid scientific researcher at 12 and was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile last year at 13. And you may have wondered, as I did, what kind of parents would do that to their kid. In The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, you find out exactly what kind of parents would do that — the kind who had no choice.
This engaging memoir by Jake’s mother, Kristine Barnett, follows the development from birth of a remarkable boy who forced his rather ordinary parents — a modest young Amish daycare teacher and her wrong-side-of-the-tracks husband — to become extraordinary. If they hadn’t, this unusual child with an off-the-charts IQ of 189 might have been lost to the world forever, locked up in what Kristine calls “the gaping, gray uncertainty of autism.”
Diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at age two — his developmental delays were textbook — Jake began top-flight therapy from a dedicated phalanx of experts. In fact, therapy took over the family’s lives. “You eat, breathe and sleep autism,” Kristine writes. “Life with an autistic child is a constant race against the clock to do more, more, more.” Yet Jake was doing less. He stopped talking and making eye contact. He seemed interested only in the very obsessions the experts were trying to curb, such as staring for hours at shadows on the wall, looking at alphabet flash cards or hauling around an oversized astronomy book he could scarcely carry
Against the advice of the experts and initially the wishes of her husband, Kristine mustered the courage to follow her instincts and take her son out of therapy and his special-ed preschool to give him a “normal” summer. She tried building sandcastles, blowing dandelion fluff and making s’mores over the backyard brazier. Jake wasn’t very responsive. But when they lay on the hood of the car and looked up at the night sky, Jake seemed focused and content.
Encouraged, Kristine took him to view the sky through the big telescope at the local observatory, not realizing till it was too late that the evening included a talk by a professor. Hardly an event to take a nonverbal, developmentally delayed preschooler, Kristine thought. But Jake, now almost completely disengaged from the world, suddenly snapped to life, discussing lunar gravities with the prof. He was three and a half.
While this gave Jake’s shocked parents a glimpse into their son’s blazing intellect, life didn’t get any easier. Kristine, with her husband now bowing to her intuition, went to extraordinary lengths to help Jake make friends and get mainstreamed into a regular school. Jake withdrew into a black hole again until a neuropsychologist almost ordered his parents to take Jake out of his grade five classroom, saying, “He is deeply bored, and if you keep him there you will stifle every iota of creativity he has.”
Not only does The Spark give us insights into the fantastically complex world of autism and its effect on families, but it’s a galloping read, full of heart and self-deprecating humour. Kristine is aware that her obsession to find “the spark” not only in Jake but in every one of the children who attend the daycare she runs in her home can get a little over the top: on one occasion she actually brings home a live llama.
She’s also aware that most children with autism aren’t profoundly gifted, as Jake is. But she truly believes every parent can discover and nurture their child’s spark. Her generous spirit has led to her creating successful nonprofit programs for autistic kids and their families in her community. This, despite a host of personal problems of almost biblical proportions: flood, fire, poverty, hunger, a second baby with a life-threatening medical condition, and a stroke at age 30.
Meanwhile Jake, now 14 and set to graduate soon, has thrived at university, loves mentoring fellow students and is working on an original theory in the field of relativity that could one day win him a Nobel Prize.