Author Kristine Barnett’s sons, from right, Jake, Wesley and Ethan. Jake was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and enrolled in college at 11. (Family photo)
May 17, 2013

Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”

A few years ago, a friend, whose child attends a school for kids with learning disabilities, tried to start a book club for parents at the school. Her motivation was simple: If the parents got together once a month and talked about a book they’d read on topics like Asperger syndrome or ADHD, they’d be better equipped to help their children.

Much to my friend’s surprise, however, when she requested a meeting room for the proposed book club, she was turned down flat. The school, it seemed, didn’t want the parents meeting and, maybe, second-guessing its teaching strategies. Grateful to have their kids in such a specialized school in the first place, the parents backed off, and the book club never got off the ground.

Reading Kristine Barnett’s amazing memoir, “The Spark,” you can understand why those school administrators were leery of a little old book club. Barnett tells the story of her son, Jake, who at age 2 received a diagnosis of autism. (Autism is one of several disorders that have been redefined in the DSM-5, the revised bible of mental disorders, to be released this weekend.) As most parents would, the Barnetts relied on special ed teachers provided by the state (they live in Indiana) to guide them.

At age 3, Jake was enrolled in “life skills” classes in hopes that he might learn, as Barnett says, to “tie his own shoes at sixteen.” Often, though, Jake was so absorbed by other things — shadows on the floor, plaid patterns on clothing and, especially, alphabet flashcards — that he couldn’t be persuaded to attend to the lessons. At the beginning of “The Spark,” Barnett describes a chilling comment made by Jake’s special ed teacher on a home visit, after insisting that the boy leave his beloved alphabet cards at home: “We don’t think you’re going to need to worry about the alphabet with Jacob.” In other words, she didn’t think Jake would ever learn to read.


“The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius” by Kristine Barnett (Random House Publishing )

That was the moment, Barnett recalls, that she decided to buck the “experts” — she almost always uses that term derisively — take Jake out of special ed classes and homeschool him in an environment that would “lean into his passions.” Jake got alphabet cards galore, as well as maps (another passion) and puzzles. Barnett managed not only to mainstream Jake into kindergarten, she also did the same for many other autistic kids in the learning center, Little Light, that she ran out of her garage.

That achievement alone would be extraordinary, but here’s the kicker: The Barnetts discovered when Jake was a little boy that he’s a math and science prodigy. Turns out, he has an IQ higher than Einstein’s. At 3, Jake was arranging hundreds of crayons in the order of the color spectrum; a few years later, he memorized pi to the 200th digit and could recite it forward and backward. At 9 he began working on a theory in astrophysics that, according to those who can understand it, may put him in line for the Nobel Prize; at 11 he started college. Last summer, at 12, he became a paid university researcher in quantum physics. And, yes, Jake can tie his shoes.

“The Spark” is compulsive reading, and not simply because of Jake’s “savant almost obliterated by the system” story. In the tradition of those domestic-adventure memoirs where the mother (almost always the mother) of a challenged child bucks the system and triumphs, Barnett not only fights heroically on Jake’s behalf, she also beats down every other obstacle that life hurls at her and her family. Even for this hyperbolic genre, those obstacles are extraordinarily severe. The Barnetts’ second child, Wesley, is diagnosed with a reflex disorder soon after he’s born. It causes him to have seizures, up to nine a day, and to choke on simple liquids.

During her third pregnancy — with another son, Ethan — Barnett goes into full-blown organ failure; she subsequently has a stroke, at age 30, and is diagnosed with lupus. With the onset of the Great Recession, Michael Barnett loses his job at Circuit City, the family is overextended financially, and the Barnetts spend part of the frigid Indiana winter in a house without heat.

Barnett’s woman-warrior battle — initially, against her husband’s wishes — to defy the experts and unearth Jake’s personality and potential is inspiring. Parents of children with developmental challenges, as well as those blessed with normally functioning children, will take away a lot from “The Spark.” After that disastrous visit from the special ed teacher, Barnett asks her husband the key question: “Why is it all about what these kids can’t do? Why isn’t anyone looking more closely at what they can do?” Surely that insight speaks to all types of learning situations.

“The Spark,” though, raises some more vexing issues. As Barnett tells us, her particular gift — evident even in her childhood — involved education. Not all children with special needs are similarly blessed. What happens when those parents decide to defy the experts and just listen to their guts about their children’s curricula? Even Barnett occasionally surrenders to the wisdom of experts: physics professors who tell her about her son’s remarkable gifts, IQ specialists who measure his astounding intelligence. Also troubling is the fact that, despite Barnett’s rebellious stance, the strengths she discerns in the autistic children in her special-needs preschool seem very gender-traditional: The little boys are good at building blocks and taking things apart; the little girls excel at cooking, art and fabricating romantic stories.

These observations are not intended to diminish Barnett’s — and Jake’s — staggering achievements. As one close family friend observes, Jake is most certainly “good news.” He’s a lower-middle-class autistic savant from the heartland who, with the help of his spectacularly determined mother, has found his passions and is well on his way to greatness. Whether Jake’s story and Kristine Barnett’s maverick learning strategies represent good news for other children will probably be debated in educational circles (and book clubs) for years to come.

Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”

Read more from Outlook:

Book review of Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far From the Tree’

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THE SPARK

A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius

By Kristine Barnett

Random House. 250 pp. $25