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'The Spark' review: Nurturing a genius

Jake and Kristine Barnett. Her memoir of raising

Jake and Kristine Barnett. Her memoir of raising the autistic, astrophysics genius is titled "The Spark." Credit: Drew Endicott

THE SPARK: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett. Random House, 250 pp., $25.

The word "autism" does not appear on the jacket of "The Spark." This is remarkable in itself, given that the author, Kristine Barnett, is writing about her struggle to prevent her oldest son, Jake, from being defined by that diagnosis. As he grew up, the small day-care center she ran out of her garage morphed into a nonprofit community center for autistic children, which she and her husband still direct.

After a normal babyhood, Jake regressed. He spent hours staring at the progression of shadows along the wall, rapt. He liked to spin, and watch spinning things. The experts told his parents not to bother with the alphabet cards Jake clutched at all times. He would never learn to read, they insisted.

Jake is now 14, and if you Google "Jacob Barnett," the first thing that comes up is "teenage genius." At 12, he became the youngest astrophysics researcher in the world. The unlocking of his startling mind is quite a tale, told with folksy appeal by a woman whose creativity as a parent seems almost as prodigious as her son's cognitive gifts. Love, illness, faith, tragedy and triumph -- it's all here, saved from mawkishness by Barnett's engaging Indiana candor.

There's an element of the sideshow spectacle in books about prodigies, and this one is no exception. At four years old, normal conversation with Jake was impossible, but he had no trouble directing his parents through the streets of Chicago -- he had memorized the road atlas. As her son emerged from his silence, Barnett realized that one of Jake's favorite games -- in which he positioned people carefully around the room and made them spin in place -- was actually a working model of the solar system. At eight, he aced his first college astronomy course.

What elevates "The Spark" beyond tabloid voyeurism is Barnett's larger focus on parenting rather than prodigiousness. As soon as Jake landed in special ed, his teachers seemed to focus only on what he couldn't do, rather than what he could. Endless hours of therapy resulted in frustration and withdrawal; the work of remediation replaced the play of childhood. It was only when Barnett noticed her son's fixation on astronomy that things began to turn around. Following the compass of her own maternal instinct, she fired the specialists, pulled Jake out of school, and began to feed his passion -- his "spark."

That, she argues, is the best way to connect to an autistic child. "Imagine that you live in a tree house in a beautiful forest," she suggests, "and the only place you feel safe and calm is up in that tree house. But people keep intruding. 'Hey, come out of the trees!' they yell up at you. 'It's crazy to live in a tree.'" Her mission, with Jake and other autistic children, is to be someone who "doesn't yell or try to make you change, but instead climbs into your tree house and shows you that she loves it as much as you do." Joining a child in his own eccentric place creates trust. "We met the children where they were in order to get them where they needed to be."

Fanning Jake's spark, however, resulted in an intellectual blaze Barnett found both thrilling and frightening: her son's mind was beyond her comprehension. Though she prized the simple pleasures of childhood above all else, she ruefully acknowledged that her 10-year-old was happiest in the company of scientists, not fifth-graders. "It might sound silly," she writes, "but the idea that Jake wouldn't have a prom was hard for me to accept."

Barnett's homespun take on Jake's genius is both inspiring and somewhat hard to credit. It's refreshing to meet a mother who insists on an ordinary childhood for a child who, in the unanimous opinion of the experts, is categorically extraordinary. But when a woman whose trials rival Job's responds to her son's genius with "I'm going to need a cup of chicken soup to handle that one," you do wonder if she ever craves a drop of something stronger.

The exception proves the rule, and Jake Barnett's story contains wisdom for every parent. In the end, ironically, it's the parents of autistic kids who may take the greatest issue with "The Spark." Barnett believes that feeding a child's passion will always result in achievement that exceeds expectations. But Jake is a true prodigy, one in a million. Not all autistic kids are astrophysicists.

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