After a year of working with therapists who tried to help her autistic son, Kristine Barnett took a different approach on her own. Born a happy, affectionate child, Jacob had stopped talking or smiling when he was about 14 months, which led soon after to the diagnosis his mother describes as "devastating." As the owner of a daycare, she was interested in children and their development. And Jacob, her firstborn of three sons, had shown early signs that he was clever: learning his alphabet before he could walk, sounding out short words by the age of one. But the therapists didn't think alphabet flash cards were of any use. They didn't think he would ever read.
She persevered, watching her son closely for the things that interested or preoccupied him. Astronomy was one. One summer, she took him out into the countryside near their home in Westfield, Ind., lying down together on the top of the car to watch the stars. He had become obsessed with a college-level book on the subject.
One day, she decided to take him to a planetarium, where a lecturer was presenting a special program on Mars. At one point, he asked the audience if anyone knew why the moons around Mars are elliptical. Nobody answered. Then Jacob put his hand up. "Excuse me, but could you please tell me the size of these moons?" It was more conversation than his mother had heard from him in his entire life. The lecturer answered him. Her son then explained: "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." The room went silent. He was 3.
Soon, Jacob was "mainstreamed" in school, and with each year, his teachers and parents discovered more of his abilities. Like Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie, Rain Man, he was adept at calendar calculation – telling you which day of the week someone was born, based on the year of birth. He had stunning visual memory. He could remember how many windows there were in a skyscraper he had only seen once. By the age of 8, he was taking classes in astronomy at Indiana University. At 10, he entered university. Last year, his story was on 60 Minutes. His YouTube video on calculus, in which he writes reams of calculations on the window panes in his house, went viral. Kristine Barnett has now written a book: The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius. Warner has bought the movie rights.
In person, mother and child are a study of an extraordinary bond, of a biological, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual connection, that both affirms the helicoptering, hyper-parenting ethos of modern culture and rejects it.
"It is an adventure every day," says Kristine Barnett with a laugh when asked about their family life. Brought up in an Amish family, she left her traditional community to marry her husband, Michael, whom she had met in college. But there are qualities about her – steadfast, pragmatic, down-to-earth and stubborn – that could be seen as part of her upbringing. She is not fazed by any question or, it seems, by any event. While in turmoil about what to do with Jacob before his breakthrough, her second child, Wesley, was born with disease called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a neurological disorder that can affect every system in the body. When she was 30, she suffered a stroke, from which she is now, at 39, fully recovered. In its aftermath, she was diagnosed with lupus.
While she talks, Jacob, now 15, sits at a table in the boardroom of her publishers. Diagnosed with high-functioning autism, he is polite in the way every parent schools her teenager – shaking hands firmly, looking his interlocutor in the eye, adept at pleasantries about the weather and his recent travels. He listens to the conversation, but often when addressed, looks to his mother to help him interpret the question.
Asked how he feels about his mother's ability to identify his genius – his IQ is higher than Einstein's – he wrinkles his brow and says, "What are you asking me? Hmmm," he says, thinking to himself. And then comes his enthusiastic reply: "I'm very appreciative."
Does he hang out with other teenagers? "I do hang out with average people who are my age as well." Any girlfriends? "I was dating some for a while, but then I realized I didn't have very much time for a girlfriend." Does he feel different from other teenagers? "No, not really," he says. "I think they have just as much potential to do what I do. It just takes doing it."
But not all autistic children have Jacob's capabilities. Do either of them worry about giving parents false hope? "Everyone has capabilities," Jacob replies. "It's who recognizes it," his mother adds. "It's the human spirit to overcome, and we all have it," she asserts. In 2000, she started a not-for-profit learning centre for autistic and special-needs children, called Jacob's Place, where she will often bring in animals, to engage the children.
"The animals change," Jacob explains. "One time it was a llama. One time it was a sheep."
"There was a rabbit farm one year," adds his mother.
"And currently, we are in cats," he deadpans.
She believes in a learning technique she calls "muchness ... It is finding that thing that children are truly passionate about within themselves. It can't be something that you're telling them to do. And then it has to be total immersion, very rich experiences built around those interests."
"Muchness" sounds like an endorsement of hyper-parenting Tiger-momish culture, I point out. But she shakes her head. "All I've done is follow him with wonder into the stuff that he loves … But it's very hard for many people to take a leap of faith and put everything you have into [some interest] that doesn't look like it will turn into a job on Wall Street. As a parent, you have to let go of your dreams for them, because they are yours."
"I like having autism. It's part of my character," Jacob explains. Currently, he is working on three projects: chaotic laser physics, classic PT symmetry, and one that "has to do with string theory." He is looking into graduate programs in math and physics.
He has ideas all the time, he tells me, often in the middle of the night. "He wakes me up to tell them to me," his mother says.
"Only if it's a good one," he puts in.
And what was the last one that he thought was really good?
"I come up with them too rapidly to think of the last one. Assigning them an order isn't going to help."
Suddenly, his mother turns into the one asking questions of this sweet, extraordinary prodigy. "What do you think about when I go, 'Oh, I'm worried about you taking [on too much]?'"
He looks at her, offering a rapid comeback: "I'm worried about you having more media appearances."
I wasn't sure what he had said, and asked him to repeat his comment.
He does, and then explains: "I'm using sarcasm."