Jacob Barnett a genius who just happens to be autistic!

Originally published on September 4th, 2013. Featured again on February 8th, 2014.

From Jacob's blog.

From Jacob’s blog.

September 4, 2013: It is long past time for us to modify our perceptions about the uniqueness and creativity of those with autism, just as it was in the 1950s when left handedness was seen as abnormal.

In fact, the notion that there was something wrong with me, and different than my fellow students, was brought home to me on my first day of Kindergarten.

I was colouring something when the teacher, who was slightly behind me, suddenly whacked my left knuckles with a ruler.

Of course, I screamed and cried but all the teacher could say was something to the effect that I shouldn’t ever use that hand again — that from now on I had to use my right hand.

Talk about prejudice and what would be found out later, an unfounded one.

Anyway, the long term result is that, while I write better with my right hand, I can write with either hand in a pinch! And, besides handwriting, I do everything else with my left hand.

Anyway, my left-handed point is that what is seen as inappropriate or weird by one generation is not necessarily so in later generations. Without a doubt, that is what is happening now regarding some types of autism. Behaviours that were considered wrong or weird before are now being referred to as simply different or genius.

Any doubts? Read Paul Well’s article in the current Macleans about Jacob Barnett, a boy who has both autism and genius (H/T Jack’s Newswatch) and is currently attending the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.

Truly amazing. Jacobs’ supportive parents and siblings, but particularly his mother Kristine Barnett (who wrote “The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius”), seem to have awakened the broader ABA (behavioural counselling) and publicly funded education community, to new ways of planning for, and accommodating, children and youth with autism.

My title is on purpose. Is 15-year-old Jacob Barnett a genius because of his autism spectrum disorder? Or, is he a genius in spite of his autism? My point is that it doesn’t really matter. He is who he is.

There is also the question: Is Jacob’s gift indicative that he is a savant? From a professional perspective I would say no. Why do I say no? Because Jacob is not gifted in a single area, such as remembering numbers, calculating multiplication and division in his head or composing music. He is gifted in all areas of science.

As this Daily Mail column states: “The boy wonder, who taught himself calculus, algebra, geometry and trigonometry in a week, is now tutoring fellow college classmates after hours.”

Yes, savants are wonders, and I have written about them before, but savants are usually developmentally delayed in all areas except the one area of their gift. For sure, savants don’t finish Master’s and Ph.D degrees — as Jacob apparently plans to do.

It is true, however, that for some families and children diagnosed with a severe ASD (autism spectrum disorder), the repercussions of the disability is difficult for everyone involved and support and housing is a lifelong requirement.

Similarly, it is true for individuals who are even marginally disabled with an ASD (such as my adult son), because they and their families will also have to depend on government benefits and independent living assistance.

Nevertheless, as Jacob’s example shows, just as many, if not more perhaps, of people who are diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s, are essentially normal or, in some cases, gifted — they simply show their creativity and genius in different ways.

So, in my opinion, the crux of the matter is that Jacob’s case is a call to arms to the autism support community — such as behavioural therapists, school administrators, special education teachers and regular classroom teachers.  That call means it is long past time we started looking at children and youth with autism in a way that encourages them to be who they are, not what we want them to be.

Update Thursday, Sept. 5th, 2013: For those who would like to follow Jacob’s story,  here is the link to Jacob’s website and blog. 



(1) Full disclosure. Up until recently, I believed that autism at all levels was, at the very least, a disorder, if not an outright disability. However, over the last few years, I have modified my views somewhat and understand what the disagreements were all about.  However, I realize that my changed views do not alter the challenges my adult son has to go through or those who are severely autistic. But, and this is a big BUT, I DO realize why some high functioning autistics resent the constant negative labels and why the education system has to find ways to accommodate those changed realities.

(2) I have now read Kristine Barnett’s book. See my review and recommendations here.

(3) This article was cross-posted at Jack’s Newswatch.  So, Jack’s regulars should look for it there as well.

(4) Jacob’s image updated on Friday, September 6th, 2013.

5 thoughts on “Jacob Barnett a genius who just happens to be autistic!

  1. Pingback: Crux: Jacob Barnett is a genius who just happens to be autistic! | Jack's Newswatch

  2. Slapped on the knuckles for using the left hand brings back memories of what teachers did to try and make us right handed. One student had a record of breaking the ruler the teacher taped to his left arm so he couldn’t use it. After 6 loud cracks heard in the classroom she gave up. He still uses his left hand to write, One teacher stressed, the hand you write with is your right. After all these years that sticks and I have trouble making right turns, want to go left. lol That is why I don’t drive in cities or read maps to the driver. Those desks with the little area to write on, on the right side, caused many of us problems trying to twist and turn to use them. I solved my problem by sitting in the back of class, next to an empty desk and used that one to write on.


  3. Mary T. Crazy eh and that we remember the left-handed punishment so well. I’d forgotten about the desks being for right handers. Nice to hear from you.


  4. My mother was one who was made to use her right hand to write, while she did continue through life doing so she always felt she had poor handwriting and blamed it on being forced to use her right hand.

    When it comes to trying to change people who happen to present as different from what is deemed “normal” or acceptable in general society, it’s a wrong headed approach, their differences should be worked with and around to bring out their strong points according to their capabilities. Many autistic people have shown and continue to show amazing capabilities and excel on many fronts.


  5. Nice to hear from you Liz too.

    When I was in my doctoral program, and was studying brain function, I learned that people who are left-handed use primarily their right hemisphere and vice versa. So, trying to change kids to the right hand actually did them a cognitive disservice.

    So, my left side is dominant in everything except hand writing because I was forced to change. Being somewhat ambidextrous is fun though. If I am at a dinner party and things are crowded, I can eat with either hand. LOL

    But, the principle with autism, as you say, is relevant. If someone with autism thinks in a different way but ends up with the same result, let them use what comes naturally. That is what Jacob’s mom did and I have such respect for her being able to stand apart from the crowd.

    I was given a hard time during parent-teacher interviews about my son many times, even though I taught in the same school board. How much worse, for someone who supposedly isn’t a professional. That “professional” label can get VERY tiring especially when the teacher is neither married or ever raised children. They don’t learn everything in a one, two or even three year B.Ed program.

    I have written about that “wall” between teachers and parents many times and it is doubtful it will ever come down. But, one can hope that at some point it will at the very least get porous.


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