Parent Kristine Barnett’s book “The Spark” must-read

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

Copy of The Spark cover # 2 500 pxl

As a retired teacher-educator and former special education parent advocate, I found Kristine Barnett’s book “The Spark” a real eye opener.

I found it an eye opener, not because Kristine’s insights surprised me, but because they confirmed what I have long believed — that special education labels can be negatively deterministic and that autism is still seen as a lifelong disability, rather than, for some at least, a different way of interacting with the world.

For me, the first major instance of proof of that type of determinism, was when Kristine took Jake out of a special education pre-school program.  Essentially, the teacher had demanded that he not be allowed to bring his alphabet cards to school again.

What that signified to Kristine, and rightly so, was that the teacher had basically given up on Jake ever learning to read — even though he was only three at the time! I mean, I am a reading specialist. I taught kids with mild to moderate autism to read as late as age eight or nine!

Anyway, thankfully, Kristine started a program called “Little Light” where she set about preparing Jake and many other children with autism, for a mainstreamed Kindergarten class. My interpretation of how her preparation differed from the formal pre-school class was that she believed the kids could learn and she was willing to go with the flow — by letting their interests, and those of the other children in her group, decide what they did and when they did it.

Of course, when Jake finally did arrive for the first day of Kindergarten, the principal was hesitant because of the earlier autism label. Fortunately, Kristine and her husband Michael talked him into giving Jake a three-week probationary period, during which time he adapted just fine.

Unfortunately, however, the challenges with the school system had only started. When Jake was around ten, Kristin and her husband Michael participated in a meeting of teachers and school officials to talk about a possible gifted program for Jake. His genius was already obvious to everyone.

Yet, they no sooner got the meeting started, and the words special education and IEP came up. No wonder Kristine got up and walked out of that room.  I can well imagine the comments those so-called experts made when she did. “She just doesn’t understand. Blah. Blah. Blah.”

Well, as it turned out, it was those experts who didn’t understand.

Needless to say, this book is easy to read because the chapters flow chronologically and the chapter titles are descriptive. While the chapters on family and health problems can be long at times, they are important in terms of the context of Jake’s life. He is who he is because of who is parents are and everything that happened to him.

Endnote: See also my first post on the subject of Jacob Barnett, based on Paul Wells’ article in Macleans. It explains that Jake (Jacob) is currently attending the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.

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.