THE SPARK:A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius
By Kristine Barnett
Published by Random House, New York, 2013
Reviewed by Linda M. Olsen, M.Ed.
After reading THE SPARK, I can say without reservation that Kristine Barnett is an amazing, giving, caring, and smart person and mother who happens to live in Indiana. Kristine and her husband, Michael, are the parents of Jake, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. He began taking college-level courses in math, astronomy and physics at age eight and was accepted to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) at age ten. At the age twelve Jake was hired as a paid researcher at the university.
These amazing fetes were made possible because Kristine STRONGLY believes we should look at the interests and strengths of our children, NOT their deficits and weaknesses. She writes, “for me, more than anything, it is about the power of hope and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we keep our minds open and learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child “. Kristine always loved children and after she married she operated a daycare out of her home.
Kristine writes that as a baby Jake was affectionate and curious and talked early. He even learned the alphabet before he could walk. However, at fourteen months things started to change. He was not talking or smiling any more. He seemed to be retreating further and further into his own world. He was losing his speech and unable to make eye contact with anyone. The author’s mother gave her a newspaper article describing what autism looked like. Kristine cried when she read the article! When she and her husband, Michael, had Jake formally evaluated the diagnosis was that he had Asperger’s.
By the time he was two and a half, he was a totally different child from what he was when he was younger. He no longer made eye contact with anyone, didn’t allow anyone to hug him, and he stopped speaking entirely. Right before he was three, his second formal diagnosis went from Asperger’s to “full blown” autism.
During his second year, he had state-funded speech, occupational, physical, and developmental therapy from therapists who came to his home.
This state funded program, First Steps, ended when he turned three. He was then eligible to attend a special-education developmental
preschool in the fall. But, his mother was determined to not waste the summer, and worked very hard for that to not happen.
Kristine did such things as the Picture Communication System with him. And, she made a pouch to compress him by folding a hammock, sewing it lengthwise, and then folding it and hanging it from the ceiling. Jake was able to focus better when he was being compressed in the pouch. Kristine did a variety of other things to help him to have a more typical childhood.
When the summer was over, Jake went off to a special education pre-school. But, before long Kristine observed he was losing all the progress he made with her over the summer. Against her husband’s wishes, she took Jake out of the special-ed pre-school and had him stay home where she could teach him. Kristine was determined that Jake would be ready for regular kindergarten in a public school.
Melanie, Jake’s developmental therapist, helped Kristine and Jake during daycare hours at Kristine’s house. It wasn’t long before he was making progress. He loved doing puzzles, and he was relaxed and engaged. He was also very much into numbers and letters. Kristine realized Jake needed to increase his social skills to be mainstreamed into regular kindergarten. So, she started a series of evening classes for other autistic children and their families. She called the program “Little Light” and did not charge the parents for the classes. She also started a sports program for these children. She felt they needed to know how it felt to play. Her policy was to start the children with things they wanted to do, not what they couldn’t do. Her philosophy was “that everyone has an intrinsic talent, a contribution to make, even if it comes in an unexpected form. “
Jake was mainstreamed into a regular kindergarten. By that time he was reading at the third/fourth grade level. Jake loved to read books on astronomy, famous scientists, and a book on the history of the world. He was also preoccupied with the weather and learning new languages. Jake became bored with the third-grade math curriculum so Kristine hired his aunt, a high school math teacher, to teach Jake math. But, he soon became bored with algebra and Kristine decided he needed something where he could socialize more.
So, as a family they went to the nearby Holcomb Observatory at Butler University where they had gone before. When the observatory closed for the winter it did not have a planetarium, but it offered astronomy classes. Kristine called a professor there who taught a freshman course on the Solar System and asked if her eight year old son could sit in. He did agree and Kristine would accompany Jake to the classes. He participated beyond anyone’s expectations!
She no longer saw Jake as a little kid, but as a scientist.
She also realized it was very important for autistic kids to learn how to play. With help from her husband she
started a Saturday-morning sports program for autistic and other special-needs children. They called it Jacob’s Place. Kristine still operates Jacob’s Place today.
Through a Program called SPAN, Jake was tested and accepted as a ten-year-old to Purdue. Kristine knew he could handle the college scene and courses, but she had to convince her husband. During, the first semester, he was restricted to three credit hours and an introductory math class. But, by age twelve he was a paid researcher in quantum physics at IUPUI. Soon after that, he was invited to be part of an undergraduate research program in the physics department for which he was also paid. Jake was the youngest astrophysics researcher in the world!
Kristine says, “If you fuel a child’s innate spark, it will always point the way to far greater heights than you could ever have imagined.” She also stresses that she let Jake do the things he loved, but made sure he made time to get a childhood.
Without reservation, this is a MUST READ book for parents of ALL children.