Jacob Barnett nearly ended up in a special education class when he went to kindergarten. Diagnosed with autism at age 2, Jacob resisted efforts from well-meaning professionals who wanted him to perform such tasks as sorting objects, opening boxes, and having simple conversations. What Jacob was really interested in was light, shadow, and the alphabet. In The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius, Kristine Barnett recounts the story of her son Jake and his development from a child diagnosed with autism to a paid researcher in quantum physics.
From the beginning, Jacob’s mother, Kristine, was doing the best she could to advocate for her child. Knowing that she needed to help Jacob make progress before he turned 5, she scheduled as many different types of therapy and structured play as she could. Unfortunately, Jake responded in the opposite way than his family had hoped and withdrew more and more into his own world. One day, in an act of complete defiance of the advice of experts and the opinion of her husband, Kristin pulled Jacob out of his classes. She determined to make him ready for kindergarten—mainstreamed kindergarten—on her own.
Kristine, who had run a successful daycare out of her home, became a force for her son. No more would Jake be required to perform meaningless tasks simply because they were “life skills” he needed to know. Instead, Jake would be allowed to follow his interests and learn at his whim. It turns out his interests are calculus (He taught himself in two weeks. I took it for a semester and nearly died!), astronomy, and motion. Kristine was there not only to take him to the places that he wanted to go for his intellectual pursuits (the planetarium, various colleges), but she also ensured that Jake got the joys of a regular childhood as well. He played sports, hung out with friends, and went to the park.
Jake is a remarkable child. With an IQ of 170, he has a brilliant mind. It is quite possible that he will develop some scientific theory that will change the world. But instead of the science he was interested in, I found myself focused instead on the force that changed his world—his mother’s belief in her child.
Through the struggles with health, another sick child, and finances, Kristine never ceased trying to make life better, not only for her child, but for other children as well. She created programs for other autistic children, and her dedication to finding methods to reach each child, no matter their level of development, was inspiring. I wanted to visit her daycare by the time I had finished reading the novel.
One thing that I think Kristine did exceptionally well in this book is to paint a true picture of autism. Though Jake is clearly a genius, she does not gloss over the difficulties he has. While he can name the digits of pi, he has difficulties in basic social interactions. In addition, I enjoyed reading of her interactions with other autistic children through her daycare work. She tells of her work with other children with autism who are lower functioning and the methods she uses to help them. She and her husband developed a sports team for children and created sensory experiences for them as well.
I found myself completely enthralled and moved by this tale of devotion and love. As an educator myself, I found the message of the book thrilling. What if “learning” is not the point? What if it is far more important to find the “spark” that each child has inside himself?
The Spark is a moving, inspiring story that I highly recommend to anyone interested in how children learn, the power of love, and the remarkable abilities of one mother to change her child’s world. As a side note, I looked up a video of Jake online, just so I could watch this remarkable young man in action. After watching it, I was moved to tears. The child who could not tie his shoes, who withdrew into his own world, was giving a speech about pursuing your passion. This was a timely reminder indeed.
*I received this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina
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