The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism

by Kristine Barnett


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Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At nine he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize, and at age twelve he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine’s journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes.
The Spark is a remarkable memoir of mother and son. Surrounded by “experts” at home and in special ed who tried to focus on Jake’s most basic skills and curtail his distracting interests—moving shadows on the wall, stars, plaid patterns on sofa fabric—Jake made no progress, withdrew more and more into his own world, and eventually stopped talking completely. Kristine knew in her heart that she had to make a change. Against the advice of her husband, Michael, and the developmental specialists, Kristine followed her instincts, pulled Jake out of special ed, and began preparing him for mainstream kindergarten on her own.
Relying on the insights she developed at the daycare center she runs out of the garage in her home, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob’s “spark”—his passionate interests. Why concentrate on what he couldn’t do? Why not focus on what he could?  This basic philosophy, along with her belief in the power of ordinary childhood experiences (softball, picnics, s’mores around the campfire) and the importance of play, helped Kristine overcome huge odds.
The Barnetts were not wealthy people, and in addition to financial hardship, Kristine herself faced serious health issues. But through hard work and determination on behalf of Jake and his two younger brothers, as well as an undying faith in their community, friends, and family, Kristine and Michael prevailed. The results were beyond anything anyone could have imagined.
Dramatic, inspiring, and transformative, The Spark is about the power of love and courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child, and in all of us.

Praise for The Spark
“[An] amazing memoir . . . compulsive reading.”The Washington Post
The Spark is about the transformative power of unconditional love. If you have a child who’s ‘different’—and who doesn’t?—you won’t be able to put it down.”—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
“Love, illness, faith, tragedy and triumph—it’s all here. . . . Jake Barnett’s story contains wisdom for every parent.”Newsday
“This eloquent memoir about an extraordinary boy and a resilient and remarkable mother will be of interest to every parent and/or educator hoping to nurture a child’s authentic ‘spark.’”—Publishers Weekly
“Compelling . . . Jake is unusual, but so is his superhuman mom.”—Booklist
The Spark describes in glowing terms the profound intensity with which a mother can love her child.”—Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon and Far from the Tree
“Every parent and teacher should read this fabulous book!”—Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures and co-author of The Autistic Brain

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812983562
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/25/2014
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 438,406
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kristine Barnett lives in Canada with her husband, Michael, and their three boys, Jacob, Wesley, and Ethan. She is a public speaker on alternative education for children with autism.

Read an Excerpt

An Inch, or Ten Thousand Miles

Excerpted from "The Spark"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Kristine Barnett.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Advance praise for The Spark
The Spark is about the transformative power of unconditional love. If you have a child who’s ‘different’—and who doesn’t?—you won’t be able to put it down.”—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind and Grand Pursuit
The Spark describes in glowing terms the profound intensity with which a mother can love her child.”—Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon and Far from the Tree
“Every parent and teacher should read this fabulous book!”—Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures and co-author of The Autistic Brain


A Conversation with Kristine Barnett, Author of The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius

Your son, Jacob, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. What was it like for you and your husband to hear this news?

When our son Jacob was two years old he was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. Once full of joy and delightful babyhood giggles, our son was slowly slipping into his own silent world. Experts told us we might never get him back. They predicted he would never say the words "mommy" or "daddy" again and that he would not get an education outside of special ed. We were told we should begin saving for the eventual day that we would be too old to care for him. For us it was devastating. The one thing that everyone agreed on was that there was a complete absence of hope. In that one word, "autism," everything changed: our ideas of what the future held for our son and our goals as parents.

You believed that instead of focusing on what Jacob couldn't do, you could better help him by focusing on what he could do. How did you arrive at this method?

Shortly after Jacob was diagnosed as being "on the autism spectrum", we began an intense program of treatment. This was the standard protocol. Within several weeks we had a team of therapists who came out to the house to work with Jacob. Each morning a veritable army of experts showed up at our door, all focused on fighting to bring up Jacob's lowest skills. They tackled goals like going up the steps one leg at a time, playing peekaboo, and stacking rings. Soon Jacob's calendar looked like that of a busy executive rather than a preschool child's. At the time I was also running a little daycare center attached to my house. On the very first warm day of the year, I took the children out into the fresh green grass to play in the sprinkler. They kicked off their shoes and splashed each other, squealing in complete reckless childhood abandon and wonder. From my vantage point I could see back though our picture window into the house where my own son was nodding off at the table. He seemed too bored to participate in his therapy session. I realized then that all everyone had been focusing on were the things that were difficult for Jacob, the things that challenged him, and that ultimately he could not do. I also realized with a frightening certainty that we were missing something very important, something elemental and essential. We were forgetting Jacob's childhood. I realized if I did not fight for my son to have a childhood, he very well might not get the time he needed to have one. That is when my entire program with Jacob changed. I decided I would not spend any more time focusing on what he could not do! Against the advice of the experts around me who were counting hours of early intervention, I took him out into the warm Indiana countryside that night, to see the wide open sky full of stars. We kicked off our shoes, toted boxes of popsicles along, and danced to Louis Armstrong. It was there, under the stars , that Jacob began to come back from autism and into my world again.

And now Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein's! What is it like living with a genius?

Once I had found out what made Jacob light up with a smile and had decided to embrace the things that others perceived as wasted time—such as rotating balls and studying their shadows or constructing intricate geometric shapes out of yarn throughout the house by wrapping it around the surfaces of everything in the room—Jacob began to unexpectedly emerge from his diagnosis. I surrounded him with "muchness," giving him every opportunity to explore anything that seemed to engage him. By the age of three, against all odds and to the amazement of his doctors and therapy team, Jacob began to speak again, and what he said was astonishing. Looking at Mars at a local planetarium, he caught the attention of a crowd by launching into a lecture about the effects of gravity on the shape of the moons around the planet. Somehow, trapped within his own silent world, he had been working, not on preschool, but on problems that had plagued science since the beginning of time. He had rediscovered Kepler's laws of planetary motion all on his own. By age eight he was a frequent at the local university, sneaking into college lectures on astronomy and acing the exams. At nine he was formally admitted to the university. At ten he created an original theory in astrophysics that scientists believe will put him in line for a Nobel Prize. It was like pushing a snowball down a hill and watching it gain momentum. As long as I let Jacob focus on his "spark" , the things he loved and that came naturally to him, he was unstoppable!

Do you have any advice for parents that have a child that is labeled as "different"? What do you hope your book teaches them?

It is tempting for parents to go out and find help whenever anything goes wrong with their child. We hire math tutors if our children are struggling with math. There are learning centers lining the blocks of every city in America. To many, this has become a business model that just can't fail—fixing our kids whenever they seem to have difficulty in any area. It is comforting to know that if you shift the balance and instead let them explore in the areas they find compelling and that they innately are drawn to even as young children, this unexpected path can lead to those lower skills rising as well. Many of us have heard the expression "all boats rise with the tide". I believe the potential for greatness lies within each and every one of our children. I am not saying that every child is a prodigy, but I am saying that these "sparks", islands of tremendous potential, lie within all of us. And by finding them and giving them a boost, we can watch our children outdistance any possible expectation we had for them! I also am afraid that by focusing on only our weaknesses and by trying to be a competent at everything, we could be tamping down potential and even genius in our youth. Sitting somewhere in America there is the next Michaelangelo, the next Wozniak, the next Frank Lloyd Wright. It is our job to find that potential, give it everything it needs to reach its full glory, and then step out of the way!

Who have you discovered lately?

I have discovered many beautiful things in the process of writing my book! For one, the love and support of my family. My youngest child Ethan, I found, has a knack for baking fresh blueberry scones and I hope he does not stop now that the book is done! In the literary world, I was exposed to a new book by John Elder Robison called Raising Cubby. I found it provocative in that it shows how people learn talent in childhood. If it is nurtured, the heights to which that talent can rise are incredible. My dear friend Temple Grandin has also written a new book called The Autistic Brain, and I look forward to reading it and discovering the secrets she has found in research. I also was so pleased to have the honor of listening to a concert by a young musician named Mteto Maphoyi, who was raised an orphan in South Africa but learned opera from a little record player his father had left him. Sitting in an auditorium in New York, I shivered as his voice swept over the crowd. I cannot express what I felt listening other than it was like being in the shade of an angel's wings. This young man certainly has found and is using his "spark" to bring beauty to the world. For fun I have been reading Maria Shriver's book Just Who Will You Be? So inspiring and a real treat! I plan on spending the summer with the genius of Andrew Solomon's incredible book Far From The Tree and of course reading Jodi Picoult!

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