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

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679645245
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,039,901
File size: 5 MB

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

November 2001


"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. I had spent nearly a year stepping forward to meet the gaping, gray uncertainty of autism. I had stood by helplessly watching as many of Jake's abilities, such as reading and talking, had disappeared. But I was not going to let anyone slam the door shut on the potential of this child at the tender age of three, whether he was autistic or not.

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.

As a result, I made the scariest decision of my life. It meant going against the experts and even my husband, Michael. That day, I resolved to stoke Jake's passion. Maybe he was trying to learn to read with those beloved alphabet cards, maybe he wasn't. Either way, instead of taking them away, I would make sure he had as many as he wanted.

Three years before, I'd been ecstatic to find out I was pregnant with Jake. At twenty-four, I'd been practicing for the role of mother as far back as I could remember.

Even as a little girl, it was clear to me (and to everyone around me) that children were likely to hold a special place in my future. My family had always called me the Pied Piper, because wherever I went, there was sure to be a trail of little ones on my heels, waiting for an adventure to begin. My brother, Benjamin, was born when I was eleven, and right from the start he was never far from my hip. By the time I was thirteen, I was the go-to babysitter for the whole neighborhood, and by fourteen I was in charge of the Sunday school at our church. So nobody was the least bit surprised when I went to work as a live-in nanny to help pay my way through college. Then, after I got married, I opened my own daycare, a lifelong dream. I'd been around children my whole life, and now I couldn't wait to have my own.

Unfortunately, the road leading to Jake's birth was not easy. Although I was still young, the pregnancy was touch and go from the beginning. I developed a dangerous high-blood-pressure condition called preeclampsia, which is common in pregnancy and can harm both mother and child. My mother helped out with my daycare, as I was desperate to hold on to the baby. But the pregnancy became more and more fraught, as I went into preterm labor again and again. Eventually, my doctors became so concerned that they put me on medication and strict bed rest to help prevent premature labor. Even so, I was hospitalized nine times.

Three weeks before my due date, I was rushed to the hospital once again, this time in labor that couldn't be reversed. A cascade of events made the outcome increasingly uncertain. For me, the scene was a kaleidoscope of people rushing in and out, alarms sounding constantly, as the faces of the nurses and doctors crowding the room grew increasingly tense. Michael says this was the day he saw exactly how tough and stubborn I could be. I didn't know it at the time, but my doctor had pulled him aside to tell him that labor wasn't going well and he needed to be prepared: It was likely he would be going home with either a wife or a baby, but not both.

All I knew was that in the middle of the hazy blur of noise, pain, medication, and fear, suddenly Michael was by my side, holding my hand and looking into my eyes. He was a tractor beam, pulling my -attention--my whole being--into focus. That moment is the only clear memory I have of that frantic time. I felt as if a camera had zoomed in on us and all the commotion surrounding us had ceased. For me, there was only Michael, fiercely strong and absolutely determined that I hear him.

"There aren't just two but three lives at stake here, Kris. We're going to get through this together. We have to."

I don't know whether it was the actual words he said or the look in his eyes, but his urgent message broke through the fog of my terror and pain. He willed me to understand the unending depth of his love for me and to draw strength from it. He seemed so certain that it was in my power to choose life that he made it true. And in a way that felt sacred, he promised in return to be a never-ending source of strength and happiness for me and for our child for the rest of his days. He was like the captain of a ship in a terrible storm, commanding me to focus and to survive. And I did.

Real or imagined, I also heard him promise me fresh flowers in our home every day for the rest of my life. Michael knew that I had always been wild for flowers, but a bouquet from a florist was a luxury we could afford on only the most special occasions. Nevertheless, the next day, while I held our beautiful baby boy in my arms, Michael presented me with the most beautiful roses I have ever seen in my life. Thirteen years have passed since that day, and fresh flowers have arrived for me every week, no matter what.

We were the lucky ones--the happy miracle. We couldn't know it then, but this would not be the last time our family would be tested or that we would beat incredible odds. Outside of romance novels perhaps, people don't talk seriously about the kind of love that makes anything possible. But Michael and I have that kind of love. Even when we don't agree, that love is our mooring in rough waters. I know in my heart it was the power of Michael's love that pulled Jake and me through the day Jake was born, and it has made everything that has happened since then possible.

When we left the hospital, Michael and I had everything we'd ever wanted. I'm sure every new family feels that way, but we truly felt that we were the most fortunate people on the planet.

On the way home, with our brand-new bundle in tow, we stopped to sign the final mortgage papers on our first home. With a little help from my larger-than-life grandfather Grandpa John Henry, we were moving into a modest house at the end of a cul-de-sac in a working-class suburb in Indiana, where I also would operate my daycare business.

Glancing over Jake's fuzzy newborn head at a beaming Michael, I was suddenly reminded that it was pure serendipity that Michael and I had found each other--especially when our first meeting seemed so ill-fated.

Michael and I met while we were in college. Our seeming "chance encounter" was actually the ploy of my meddling sister, Stephanie. Completely unbeknownst to me, she had felt compelled to play matchmaker--a ludicrous notion, since I was emphatically not in the market for a beau. On the contrary, I was on the giddy cusp of becoming officially engaged--I hoped--to a wonderful young man named Rick, my very own Prince Charming. We were blissful together, and I was looking forward to our happily ever after.

Stephanie, however, had a "feeling" about me and a boy from her public-speaking class--a boy who was not just brilliant but electrifying, a boy she was convinced was my true soul mate. So she hatched a scheme.

On the afternoon she sprung her trap, I was busy in her powder room, readying myself for a date with Rick, with at least twenty different shades of lipstick and eight pairs of shoes out for consideration. When I finally emerged, I found that the person standing before me was not my boyfriend, but a boy I'd never laid eyes on before. There, in her tiny studio apartment, under false pretenses, Stephanie introduced me to Michael Barnett.

Confused by this unexpected visitor, I looked to my sister for an explanation. She pulled me aside to confide in a hushed whisper things that made no sense at all. She said that she'd invited this boy over so that we'd be forced to meet. She'd even called my boyfriend with an excuse to cancel our date that evening.

At first I was too dumbstruck to react. As it slowly dawned on me that Stephanie was trying to play Cupid, I truly thought she'd lost her mind. Who fixes up someone who's hoping her boyfriend is about to propose?

I was furious. She and I hadn't been raised to play the field. In fact, I hadn't gone on my first date until I was in college. We certainly hadn't been taught to be dishonest or disloyal either. What could she have been thinking? But as much as I felt like screaming at her--or storming out of the apartment altogether--we'd been raised with good manners, and Stephanie was counting on that.

I extended my hand to the boy, who was as much a pawn in Stephanie's charade as I, and took a seat with him and my sister in the living room. Stilted chatter ensued, although I wasn't really paying attention. When I finally looked at the boy, really registering him for the first time, I noticed his backward baseball cap, his bright eyes, and his ridiculous goatee. With his laid-back, scruffy appearance, I assumed that he lacked substance. The contrast with my crisply formal, preppy boyfriend could not have been more pronounced.

Why had Stephanie wanted us to meet? I was a country girl, from a family that for generations had lived a modest, simple life. Rick had shown me a very different world--one that included penthouses, car services, ski vacations, nice restaurants, and art gallery openings. Not that any of that mattered. Stephanie could have brought Brad Pitt into the living room, and I still would have been angry at her for disrespecting my relationship. But the contrast between this disheveled college student and the shiny penny I was seeing made me wonder all the more what my sister had been thinking.

Before long, Stephanie yanked me from my silent perch and, trying to find a bit of privacy within her tiny studio apartment, chided me sternly. "Where are your manners?" she demanded. "Yell at me later if you like, but give this boy the courtesy of a proper conversation." She was, I saw immediately and with embarrassment, right. Being rude to a stranger--a guest!--was unacceptable. Courtesy and graciousness were qualities that had been instilled in us since birth by our parents, our grandparents, and the tight-knit community in which we'd been raised, and so far I had been as cold as ice.

Shamefaced, I went back to sit down and made my apologies to Michael. I told him that I was in a relationship and didn't know what Stephanie could possibly have been thinking when she'd arranged this meeting. Of course, I explained, I wasn't angry with him--only at my sister for putting the two of us in this ridiculous situation. With that out in the open, we laughed at the utter preposterousness of it and marveled at Stephanie's audacity. The tension in the room eased considerably, and the three of us fell into easy conversation. Michael told me about his classes and about an idea he had for a screenplay.

That's when I saw what Stephanie wanted me to see. The passion and drive that animated Michael when he spoke about his screenplay were unlike anything I'd seen in anyone I'd ever met. He sounded like me! I felt my stomach lurch and experienced a kind of vertigo. Instantly, I knew that my future, so certain only moments before, would not go according to plan. I would not be marrying my boyfriend. Although he was a wonderful man, that relationship was over. I had no choice in the matter. I'd known Michael Barnett for less than an hour, and yet with a certainty impossible to explain or defend, I already knew that I would be spending the rest of my life with him.

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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