Kristine Barnett not only shares an inspiring story of nurturing the greatness in her autistic son, but she does it with such warmth and compassion that it is impossible as a reader to feel guilty for not being a “better” parent too. Jacob Barnett was a normal baby but gradually started withdrawing as he became a toddler, and he was eventually diagnosed with autism. Swarms of therapists came in and out of the Barnetts’ home in Indiana, trying to pull Jake out of his self-contained world and get him to make progress in social and academic skills. But after a few months of being in the school system after Jake turned 3, Barnett knew that her son would not thrive — and she made the daring move to pull him out of school and train him herself. Rather than going by the advice of the experts, she decided to focus on what he could do rather than try to fix all the things he couldn’t do.
Since Jake seemed to love astronomy and light and his alphabet flash cards, she followed his interests, taking him to a planetarium at a local university and then taking him to astronomy classes at the college, among other things. And he blossomed. It became clear after just a short time that her son was no ordinary boy: he was a genius, a prodigy. But his parents didn’t appreciate the extent of his genius for a long time. They focused on making sure Jake could just be a kid and enjoy doing fun things with other kids his age and their family. But now that Jake is 15, he is continuing graduate work and developing the new theories of math and physics that he literally began developing in his mind when he was just a baby, gazing at the light and seemingly focusing on the wall.
Barnett’s story of her heartache over Jake’s diagnosis and her struggle to find ways to help him completely had my attention; she makes it easy to empathize and appreciate what she was experiencing in those early dark days. And as she explains all the different and creative avenues she took to find useful activities for him, Barnett always emphasizes that she had no training or experience but was simply trying to use her mother’s intuition. She’s humble as she tells what she’s done, but the massive work she put into helping her oldest son and her absolute dedication are just as astonishing as Jake’s highly unusual gifts.
What’s more, she didn’t just stop at helping her own son; she started a day care before she had him and continued that as she raised her own three children, and then began a program in the evenings for other children with autism, sharing the techniques she’d found helpful for Jake. And after THAT, she started a sports and recreation program for kids with autism, so they could just play and enjoy each other’s company and be regular kids. I couldn’t help but be utterly amazed by her love and determination and then her desire to share all of that love and the ideas she’d developed with others who needed them for free, never charging for any services.
The Spark is a story of a child with autism; it is a story of a child who is a rare genius; but it is most of all the story of the power of a mother’s love. It is utterly inspiring, as well as a great way to spark thinking about nurturing all children to help them become the best they can be.