Friday, June 14, 2013

The spark: a mother’s story of nurturing genius by Kristine Barnett

Kristine Barnett and her husband Michael’s oldest child, Jacob (Jake) was a bright and winsome baby and there were indications that he was special.  He listened to a favorite DVD and changed the language on it so he heard it in Japanese and Spanish too – which his parents weren’t really aware of until they heard him murmuring in Japanese in his crib at age 1, saying the story to himself.  But as Kristine says, a lot of parents think their child is gifted, so that they didn’t quite catch on to what his world was really like. 

But in the next year or so, Jake drifted away from them, and by age two and a half he was diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder similar to autism, and eventually diagnosed as being moderately to severely autistic.  He was not talking and not responding to those around him. 

Although Kristine and Michael testified to the special intelligence that Jake showed in his play – laying out hundreds of crayons (Kristine ran a daycare center from their house) exactly following the color spectrum, making complicated mazes of colored yarn that wound all through the house – the experts just told them sadly that often autistic children do have “high-functioning” areas, but that doesn’t make up for their isolation from others, which severely compromises their life as a human being.

Jake’s parents got on board with intensive therapy for Jake, with therapists coming to the house working one on one with Jake on social and motor skills.  Kristine noted that Jake was bored and restless in therapy, but when doing his own “playing”, he was focused and intent.  Finally Kristine realized that all this “therapy” took up so much time that Jake was missing childhood.  At age 3, he didn’t interact with kids, didn’t go running out to play with them.  So she started taking him for evening drives, out in the country….where they parked by a stream and listened to music, lay on the car hood and watched the stars, and ate popsicles.  Finally after six months of this, when she kissed him goodnight, Jake unexpectedly kissed her back and spoke to her, “night-night, baby bagel.”  

There are many such moments in the book.  Simply and straightforwardly narrated, Jake and Kristine’s story tells us how Kristine elected to “listen to her gut” and take Jake out of the Special Education preschool class, and work on getting him ready for “real” kindergarten.  For her, the wakeup call was when the Special Ed teacher asked her to stop Jake from bringing in his colored alphabet cards, which he loved, and Kristine realized that the school had no expectations that Jake would ever learn to read.

Already running a daycare, Kristine also started a twice a week night program for autistic kids to help stream them “back” into regular school classes. Her approach was to focus on their “spark” – what they loved to do, and work with that. For Jake it was puzzles, maps, and numbers.  The book shows how Jake and other autistic kids relaxed and opened up with this new world, a world not trying to push or pull them into something, but celebrating who they were and what they were good at. 

That’s why Kristine keeps reiterating that Jake’s story is for all parents. Jake had a textbook on star charts that he “found” at a bookstore and wouldn’t be separated from, so Kristine bought it.  He loved the stars and knew all the constellation names.   Kristine took Jake to a presentation at the local planetarium where Jake at 3 years old answered a question no adults seemed to know the answer to.  Never mind that he didn’t really talk yet to his family – but when the subject was right, there he was, raising his hand, unafraid and in the moment.

So, read this book if you want to hear more – how Jake went to college classes, and then went to college. Right now he’s working on his Masters in Quantum Physics at age 15.  There are certainly other youthful geniuses, but this particular story stands out – illustrating how those who don’t “fit in” can be an eye opener to us all.  

Find the book in our catalog here.

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