Nothing could be more dreadful than realizing that the baby you carried for the whole nine months is slipping away farther into his own world. Kristine had to go through all that with little encouragement from people who should be giving her the assurance that despite having a bleak future, her autistic child can be accepted for what and who he is. When Jake stopped at about a year and a half old, his parents panicked. As their first child, Kristine and Michael were clueless about the symptoms of autism. They started seeking professional help when it became apparent that something isn’t right with the way their son behaves.
For the young couple, it’s the thought of having to live without Jake ever having to say “I love you” to them again that really terrified them. Hearing that your son will never learn to do things on his own is more than enough to break a parent’s heart. Kristine chose to stand by Jake and challenge the norm. When experts said Jake had to learn how to act like other “normal” kids, Kristine left him alone to have an identity of his own. As soon as she noticed Jake’s penchant for astronomy, she indulged her son and fought her way into his world. And it was a battle worth fighting for. Before she lost her son into oblivion, Kristine caught the spark and managed to nurture it so that Jake’s fire serves as light to others.
Jake at One Year Old
1998—Michael and Kristine Barnett couldn’t contain the joy of becoming new parents to a bouncing baby boy. They named him Jacob. He has blue eyes and a charming smile. They showered him with all the love first-time parents usually tend to exhibit. The first year went well and it even seemed that the boy has exceptional skills. He has learned to say “I love you,” which is all it takes to lighten the atmosphere in the house and complete the couple’s day.
Then all that stopped before Jake turned two years old. He has become alarmingly silent, something they thought was just a phase. But Kristine, who spends all her day with other kids being an owner of a day care center, was bothered by the sudden change in Jake’s behavior. Michael also noticed that whenever he tried to carry Jake like he used to, the boy would seem uncomfortable and arch his back as if unwilling to make contact. What both Michael and Kristine noticed, however, was that their little boy seemed to refuse making eye contact.
That sent the family to their pediatrician who had Jake checked by psychiatrists. Before he even turned two years old, doctors confirmed that Jake is suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Their boy has mild to severe autism and they were told that he had to be sent to a school that offers special education.
Jake Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at Two Years Old
When it became clear that Jake is not going to grow up a normal boy, Kristine braced herself for the worst. Not altogether giving up, they consulted speech therapists, psychologists, and other specialists in order to give Jake the best care they could provide. Michael, who retails mobile phones, gave all he could to make Jake as comfortable as possible.
The therapy sessions were done in the Barnett home. There was nothing Kristine would not do just to get Jake back. She wasn’t asking for him to be totally healed, just to get him to communicate with them would do. For a time, Kristine left her son to the care of therapists. But instead of getting Jake to communicate, the boy seemed to get worse every day. This troubled Kristine so she decided to closely observe therapy sessions. One thing that she found weird was the specialists imposing what is normal to a special kid. For instance, if Jake kept playing with his ball during the session, the therapists would get the ball in order to get his attention and force him to focus on the tasks that they want done.
When Jake was not with his therapist, the couple noticed how focused he could with the most trivial things like shadows or rays of light. One time, he arranged his crayons according to their order in the rainbow sequence. When Michael asked Jake how he was able to recognize colors in that order, Jake explained by spilling his water onto the table top which then revealed a rainbow as soon as it was hit by the sun.
The therapy sessions frustrated Kristine. She felt that her child was being coaxed into doing something that he did not really like. Not that Jake was telling her anything. Jake wasn’t speaking at all but something felt wrong and she couldn’t get it out of her mind. Then she started meddling in the session. When the therapist takes Jake’s ball, she would give it back to him while no one was looking. She admitted being sort of a rebel then.
What was supposed to be helping Jake only made him more distant. It was difficult for Kristine especially because while Jake was just within reach, his mind was miles away.
Jake at Three Years Old
It soon came to a point when Kristine could no longer take it and decided to take matters in her own hands. She stopped therapy and had Jake enrolled in Indiana’s special education curriculum. In a way, Kristine was still hoping that help from experts could slowly give Jake his sense of self back. But she’d again feel tremendously hopeless when Jake’s special education teacher told her not to let Jake bring his alphabet set to school because he will never learn to read. Although it was said to her in a nice and gentle way, Kristine did not take her word for it. As Jake’s mother, she saw her son get thrilled by those cards. He even had them beside him when he slept at night. For Kristine, it must be Jake’s own way of telling her that he wants to read.
After arguing with Michael and thinking things over a thousand times, Kristine made up her mind. She will stop sending Jake to special education school and do sessions with him herself. It was not easy considering that she had no knowledge about the subject matter. All she had was unconditional love and unquestionable determination—something only mothers could give their child. Michael did not approve of Kristine’s decision but there’s nothing talking her out of it. To her, the very people she had hoped to teach her son had clearly given up on him. If they had lost hope then Jake doesn’t need them. What she’d decided to do is give Jake his childhood back and just let him be his unique self.
The first thing they did was give Jake something to pre-occupy him. He couldn’t sit still. Michael bought Jake simple wooden puzzles. They were a no brainer for Jake to complete so they had to get him more complicated ones. They, too, failed to keep him busy for a long while. Something inside Kristine was telling her that Jake is utterly gifted. She had no idea just how much.
From jigsaw puzzles, they got Jake tangrams. It was daunting for Kristine to piece seven oddly shaped figures to form basic recognizable forms but Jake did not break into a sweat. Soon, he was creating more complex images not even described in the manual. Slowly, Jake was coming out of his shell and starting to relax around them.
Although Jake was not talking, Kristine would hear him mutter numbers under his breath. At first, it was hard for her to make out what the numbers were for. One day, while she was driving with Jake in the backseat, he started reciting numbers. Kristine realized they weren’t random numbers when she finally cracked the pattern. The numbers her son was reciting were telephone numbers of trucks they pass by added up together. She also discovered Jake could read when he started to loudly recite the name of the streets they passed by. But it was Kristine’s aunt who confirmed that Jake is indeed way too intelligent for his age. She recalls:
"The “math people” in our lives found Jake fascinating. One day I was having a cup of coffee with my aunt, a high school geometry teacher, while Jake sat at our feet, playing with a cereal box and a bunch of Styrofoam balls I’d gotten from a craft store so that the daycare kids could make snowmen. He was putting the balls into the box, taking them out, and then doing it again, and it sounded as if he was counting. My aunt wondered aloud what he was doing.
I had no idea what a parallelepiped was; it sounded like a made-up word to me. In fact, it’s a three-dimensional figure made up of six parallelograms. Jake had learned the word from a visual dictionary we had in the house. And yes, you can make one out of a cereal box. My aunt was shocked, less by the fancy word than by the sophisticated mathematical concept behind it." (SOURCE: Indianapolis Monthly)
Jake’s Genius Revealed
What do you do when your child understands complex concepts far better than you do? Kristine could only support Jake by giving him the resources he needs. Once he began to read, Jake replaced his alphabet cards with a book about astrology. To Kristine and Michael’s surprise, the book is intended for university astrology students. They were clueless why Jake would take interest in reading such an intimidating book. But Kristine would soon find out.
The boy teachers thought would never read turns out to be exceptionally brilliant, but at that point Kristine doesn’t have the slightest idea what her little boy’s brain could do. Since Jake seemed to be fascinated by heavenly bodies, Kristine decided to take him to a planetarium to see Mars through a telescope. What she was not expecting was for the exhibit to include an advanced lecture in a small packed hall. It’s the last place you’d bring an autistic child. Kristine started to panic. Her heart began pounding even louder when the lecture started and Jake began to read the PowerPoint presentation quite loudly, grabbing everybody’s attention.
Towards the end of the presentation, the lecturer asked why Mars’ moon are elliptical. The room grew silent. Then a teeny-weeny voice asked the size of those moons. Doing a quick calculation, the boy said: “Then the moons around Mars are small, so they have a small mass. The gravitational effects of the moons are not large enough to pull them into complete spheres.”
Who else can say that but Jake? Still Kristine freaked out and started to feel the room getting smaller only to find out that people are flocking into them, trying to get a better look of the boy who answered the professor’s question. It was only then Kristine knew in her heart that Jake is more than just smart.
Mothers with ordinary children take pride in their child’s first steps, first word, first anything. But with extraordinarily gifted son like Jake, Kristine had it differently. At 8 years old, Jake has mastered high school Math and began getting bored in classes again. So, Kristine must get creative. She had him sit-in in university classes that made Jake even more determined to pursue a very early career in Physics.
Jake was able to complete the Indiana curriculum in just a little over a year. There was no reason why he shouldn’t be qualified for college. When he was 11 years old, Jake became a full-time student at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. The boy was always at the top of his class. But unlike other autistic kids, Jake was very easy to talk to. Kristine could be credited for that because she developed a novel way of dealing with Jake’s volatile emotions (autistic children tend to struggle with emotions). For Jake to have a better hold of his feelings, Kristine deals with it by giving him rankings. A 10 is a full-blown meltdown and is what he should be feeling should someone in the family pass away, while a 2 is the kind of feeling he should have towards a dishonest teacher.
At 11 years old, Jake was able to publish his study in a prestigious scientific journal, and by the time he turned 13, he has spoken at the TEDxTeen Talk inspiring young people to change their approach to learning. His talk currently has a million and a half YouTube hits.
Since Jake fell in love with Waterloo's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the family has relocated to Ontario, Canada along with Jake’s two brothers: Wesley and Ethan. Although neither are autistic, they too were brilliant like their big brother. Jake is now 15 and is his mother’s inspiration for the book she has written titled "The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius." We might as well heed her advice. She was able to get Jake back.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Jacob's Place
- Little Light
Awards and Achievements
- At age two, he already understood the concept behind the spectrum of light
- At three years old, he answered why the moons of Mars are elliptical
- At three years old, he was solving 5,000-piece puzzles and he even studied a state road map, reciting every highway and license plate prefix from memory
- When he was three, he could explain the laws of planetary orbit
- At 4 years old, he learned to play the piano by ear
- At eight years old, he's sitting in classes at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis
- At 11 years old, he had enrolled at IUPUI full-time
- At 11 years old, he came up with his original theory
- At 13, he had spoken at the TEDxTeen Talk with a million and a half YouTube hits
- At 15 years old, he's taking his Master's at Waterloo's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics
- A published scientific researcher
- The youngest Astrophysics researcher
Maclean's (Jacob Barnett, boy genius)
Daily Mail (Autistic boy,12, with higher IQ than Einstein develops his own theory of relativity)
Mirror.co.uk (Jacob Barnett: Experts said boy would never be able to read but now he's brainier than Einstein)
The Huffington Post (Jacob Barnett, 14-Year-Old With Asperger's Syndrome, May Be Smarter Than Einstein)
ABC News (Autistic Teen Working on Astrophysics Ph.D.)
Alien Scientist (Jacob Barnett -Boy Genius - IQ Higher than Einstein - Fantastic Videos)
USA Today (Whiz kid with Asperger's syndrome aims high)
Biographile (The Unbearable Boredom of Autism: Kristine Barnett’s The Spark)
Indianapolis Monthly (One in a Million: An Inspirational Story)