Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius - Kristine Barnett

Title: The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius
Author: Kristine Barnett
Publisher: Random House, April 9, 2013 (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 250 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction, Parenting
Started: January 5, 2013
Finished: January 8, 2013

From the back of the book:

Kristine Barnett's son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein's, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At nine he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize. Last summer, at the age of twelve, he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine's journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes.

The Spark is a remarkable memoir of mother and son. Surrounded by "experts" at home and in special ed who tried to focus on Jake's most basic skills and curtail his distracting interests-moving shadows on the wall, stars, plaid patterns on sofa fabric-Jake made no progress, withdrew into his own world, and eventually stopped talking completely. Kristine knew that she had to make a change. Against the advice of her husband, Michael, and the developmental specialists, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob's "spark"-his passionate interests. Why concentrate on what he couldn't do? Why not focus on what he could?

Dramatic, inspiring, and transformative, The Spark is about the power of love and courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child, and in all of us.

I'll admit I was a little skeptical when I first received this book. My first thought was that it was another "Tiger Mom" type of book that advocated very rigid rules with little leeway to force kids to succeed. Then when I read the summary and saw that the boy in question was autistic, I thought that it was another story about "curing autism." Thankfully, The Spark is neither of those things. It's a memoir about a mother's instincts about how to respond to her son, as well as other children in her care (both typical and special needs), and how such a simple idea led to the fulfillment of the potential of every single one of those children.

The Spark begins with describing how bright Jacob was in infancy (like memorizing and reciting the Japanese language track from his dvds kind of bright), then the change beginning at 14 months (classic autism symptoms), his autism diagnosis, followed by complete withdrawal by age 3. At that point, Kristine pulled him out of his special ed preschool which focused solely on life skills, and vowed to prepare him for mainstream kindergarten herself. Along with the other children in her home daycare, she focused on Jake's interests regardless of how mundane they seemed and encouraged him to pursue them, while at the same time giving him carefree childhood experiences that constant autism therapy lacked. She recounts how other kids both typical and special needs flourished under the same principle, that allowing them to really pursue what they wanted to led to improvement in all other areas. When Jake was allowed to study astronomy and physics (simply letting him read a textbook at age three and attend lectures at the local university), he started speaking again, having conversations, and was better able to handle social situations that are difficult for autistic kids. Kristine goes on to describe their journey through the years and the foundation of many programs for autistic and other special needs kids, as well as Jake's increasing skills as a math and science prodigy.

Most educators like myself believe in the same principles Kristine practiced and have seen it work. Rewriting a word problem in mathematics to include a child's favourite characters will make a math-phobic child actually want to solve it. A reluctant-reader will devour books if they are about one of his hobbies or something else he finds interesting. A teenager who normally doesn't like to write will gladly compose a novel if allowed to pick their choice of topic. These are all personal examples from my own teaching career and the principle between these and Kristine's ideas are the same: cater to and allow a child to pursue their interests wherever possible and not only will the child be more likely to succeed, they'll have a better attitude about themselves.

The Spark is a wonderful book about a very simple but powerful idea. In Kristine's case, it allowed her child with a genius level IQ to fulfill that amazing potential. In other kids, who knows what it could do. It also conveys the strength of a mother's love and instincts to advocate for their child in the face of adversity, which I'm sure every parent can identify with.

Wonderful, inspiring read for just about anyone, but especially parents and educators. Although the author's son is autistic, the ideas presented in the book can apply to people of all ages and ability levels, as shown by the anecdotes about the other children. The book releases in April, so be on the look-out and give it a read. Plus, Jacob made me think of a junior version of Sheldon Cooper (had to get the Big Bang reference in after it was mentioned that Jacob studied string theory).

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the equations at the top with Jacob popping up in the corner with the backwards baseball cap as the author describes him frequently wearing.

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