In her memoir The Spark, which goes on sale today, Kristine Barnett tells the story of raising her autistic son Jacob by trusting her gut rather than the experts. Here, she writes about how she helped unlock his amazing passions and potential.
When our son Jacob was two years old he was evaluated as moderately to severely autistic. At the time, this diagnosis meant there was no hope that he would ever read, tie his shoes or even be able to reach out to us as parents and hug us again. We sought out every avenue we could find to help our little boy. We surrounded ourselves with doctors and specialists, all of which were fiercely fighting to bring Jacob back into our world. A barrage of therapists came to our home and trained their focus on his lowest skills. Their protocol included things like teaching him to put a ball in a cup, a skill that sadly one of the younger children from the tiny daycare I was running could easily do. By the time Jacob was two and a half, he had the standard course of therapy. It consisted of 40-plus hours of early intervention followed by speech, developmental, physical and occupational therapies.
That spring, on the first warm day of the year, Jacob was sitting with a trusted therapist at our kitchen table when I decided to take the children in the daycare out to play in the sprinkler. After a long winter spent cooped up indoors, the sight of them laughing and playing, their pudgy toes slipping on the grass as they became soaked by the spray of water, hit me hard. We were so busy trying to “fix” Jacob that we were forgetting to let him enjoy his childhood. By spending so much of our time working on the things that challenged him, we were not giving him the time to do the things every child at his age needed to do to develop and grow. Things like licking gooey s’mores off his fingers around a campfire or fishing at the lake, spreading a blanket on the lawn and looking up at the stars, or even just spending a carefree hour blowing dandelion fluff. I knew at that moment that if I did not fight for Jacob to have a childhood, his jam-packed therapy schedule would prevent him from ever having one.
I made a decision that day that meant going against protocol to spend the time with Jacob, to prioritize those simple childhood moments. More than one therapist probably thought I had lost my mind. But I had never been more certain that I was doing the right thing for my son.
It was this decision to celebrate childhood that I would later credit with every moment that followed in parenting my son. Unexpectedly, Jacob began to emerge from his autism. His progress in therapy boggled the minds of his entire developmental team. The little boy who nobody thought would ever talk was, in fact, not only talking, but singing. He recited the numbers and letters from every license plate in the neighborhood and moved on to maps. With a box of popsicle sticks, I saw a glimpse into the extraordinary power of Jacob’s mind as he laid out the map of all of the roads in each state from memory. It was then that I decided to follow Jacob’s lead, to take whatever he was interested in and give him every resource he needed to explore whatever he wished. Gone were my days of working on his challenges and being consumed by a diagnosis. Instead I would focus on what my son was showing me he COULD do.
The progress Jacob made was startling. Defying the odds, I watched a little boy fly not only past his obstacles but through many of the breakthrough moments of math and physics history all on his own. I was surprised to find he had an intuitive understanding of gravity and the laws of planetary motion when he explained them to a crowd at a local planetarium at three and a half years old.
By age eight Jacob was attending college-level astronomy classes at the local university. He learned all of high school math, including calculus, in just two weeks on our front porch! At nine, he was accepted to the university, and by 12 Jacob had created his own original theory in the field of astrophysics that was approved by a top scientist at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He stated that if Jacob’s theory held, it would put him in line for a Nobel Prize.
It seemed that once we had found Jacob’s true passion for math and science there was no stopping him! That summer Jacob was paid by the university to do research in the field of quantum theory for which he set a world record. He became the youngest published physics researcher in history. All of these remarkable achievements made by Jacob’s amazing mind were even more startling to me as a mom because I realized what was almost lost. Autism had once threatened to swallow my son whole. His therapy protocol had no room in it for the things that he loved and enjoyed or for him to be able to experience the joy of just being a little boy.
What is even more remarkable was that as I applied this method with the other children in my daycare, taking the very things they loved and were naturally drawn to and celebrating them to the utmost, I found that every single one of them outstripped every expectation that anyone could possibly have for them. It was this way that I learned to find the spark in a child, follow it wherever it may lead, and watch as it led every single last one of them to their very own beautiful place in life. I believe that this dazzling possibility is in every child!