Finding The Spark

Finding The Spark

It has been proven that the ability to exhibit self-control as a child is a greater determinant of success in later life than IQ. What if your child’s IQ was similar to Einstein’s but the experts told you they would never learn to read? For how long do you follow expert advice when your maternal instincts are fighting against it?

Kristine and Jacob: theglobeandmail.com

Kristine and Jacob: theglobeandmail.com

Let me introduce Kristine Barnett, author of The Spark, a mother’s story of nurturing genius. This is the extraordinary story of a mother, early childcare worker and teacher who trusted her maternal instincts. Against significant odds she has achieved remarkable things with her son Jacob (Jake), who is now recognized as a maths prodigy.

At age 3 Kristine was told it was unlikely that Jacob would communicate verbally. Jacob has autism. But by age 10 Jacob was the youngest attendee at Indiana’s Purdue University in 2008. Not only does Jacob speak, in his spare time he writes maths equations and plays basketball with his friends.

The Spark sat on my shelf for a couple of months because I knew it was written by a trained educator with an autistic child and I was worried this book would be too academic and not overly relevant to me.  How wrong I was!

Writing The Spark, Kristine shares the journey of Jake and their family.  Jake’s life began ordinarily enough however at 14 months he started to regress, withdraw into himself and miss milestones.  By age 3 he had stopped speaking.  Kristine and her husband Michael had Jake in hours of expert therapy. Kristine describes the painstaking hours of developmental therapy with little obvious progress, as she recounts the heartbreak of being told Jake was unlikely to ever tie his shoes.

Against the advice of the developmental specialists and the wishes of her husband, Kristine pulled Jake out of all therapy, to teach him herself in the hope that he could be mainstreamed at school.  Kristine’s perspective was, and continues to be:

Why is it all about what these kids can’t do? Why isn’t anyone looking more closely at what they can do?
— Kristine Barnett

A breakthrough moment for Kristine, and a very heart-warming part of her story, was when -  having noticed his interest in the solar system - she recalls taking Jake to the planetarium. Kristine worried that he wouldn’t sit still for the whole presentation. That he would be disruptive and the content beyond his years. At one point the lecturer asked the audience if anyone knew why the moons around Mars are elliptical. Nobody answered. Then Jacob put his hand up. “Excuse me, but could you please tell me the size of these moons?” he asked. The lecturer answered him. Her son then responded: “The moons around Mars are small, so they have a small mass. The gravitational effects of the moons are not large enough to pull them into complete spheres.” The room went silent. He was 3.

Photo credit: spectator.co.uk

Photo credit: spectator.co.uk

Kristine also believes in the importance of everyday experiences such as picnics and playing with your neighbors, and goes to great lengths to make these things happen for her family.  She embraces the importance of play  Something we at Educa wholeheartedly endorse!

It would be remiss not to mention that Kristine Barnett has her share of detractors. Some acknowledge her great story but think the memoir is not well written, as discussed in this review by Sonia Green. And in some ways I agree, there are loose ends that Kristine could better explain. These, however relate to other facets of her story, for example her own health and the health of her second son, and not to the story of Jake. As the reader, I was able to forgive this.

Others feel that The Spark is a misleading view on the outcome for children diagnosed with autism, and going further, that perhaps Jake was misdiagnosed.

.. as the mother of two autistic sons not yet in the frame for Nobel prizes, I feel a little uneasy. One could put the book down with the impression that autism can be conquered by the right kind of nurturing; that with sufficient parental effort all our little sparks could flare into gemlike flames. This is misleading, and disheartening.
— Charlotte Moore, The Spectator

Moore also comments that Kristine is not afraid to “tootle on her own trumpet” and that her story telling was prone to exaggeration. I was also able to put this in perspective.  Kristine has achieved great things!  

Each of us is born with likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. As we journey through life many factors will influence how these preferences are nurtured and explored.  What is powerful about this story is how well it illustrates the premise that we will learn and explore when we are interested and stimulated. Children have broad interests and are naturally curious. Great early childhood teachers and engaged parents will recognize and nurture this.

2014 edition

2014 edition

Born in 1998, Jacob Barnett is now 18 years old and working towards a PhD in theoretical physics. What must be acknowledged is that Jacob Barnett has achieved remarkable things and that his mother has been extremely resilient, persistent and nurturing along this unique journey. In the simple words of author Sylvia Nasar:

“The Spark is about the transformative power of a mother’s unconditional love.”

This book review was brought to you by the Chief Operating Office at Educa! Check out our world leading software for early childhood education helps teachers and parents share insights into the spark that lies within each child.

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