Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius
by Kristine Barnett
Random House, 4/9/2013
Hardcover, 272
ISBN-13: 9780812993370 

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, and at age 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 more and more into his own world, and eventually stopped talking completely. Kristine knew in her heart that she had to make a change. Against the advice of her husband, Michael, and the developmental specialists, Kristine followed her instincts, pulled Jake out of special ed, and began preparing him for mainstream kindergarten on her own.

Relying on the insights she developed at the daycare center she runs out of the garage in her home, 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?  This basic philosophy, along with her belief in the power of ordinary childhood experiences (softball, picnics, s’mores around the campfire) and the importance of play, helped Kristine overcome huge odds.

The Barnetts were not wealthy people, and in addition to financial hardship, Kristine herself faced serious health issues. But through hard work and determination on behalf of Jake and his two younger brothers, as well as an undying faith in their community, friends, and family, Kristine and Michael prevailed. The results were beyond anything anyone could have imagined.

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.
My Thoughts:

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett is about how Kristine nurtured, supported, and encouraged her autistic son to be all he is capable of being. Her son, Jake, just happens to be a prodigy in math and science. Jake "began taking college-level courses in math, astronomy, and physics at age eight and was accepted to university at nine. Not long after, he began work on an original theory in the field of relativity."

"...Jake’s improbable mind is all the more remarkable for the fact that it was almost lost.... [after a] diagnosis of autism Jake had received when he was two. We had helplessly looked on as our vibrant, precocious baby boy gradually stopped talking, disappearing before our eyes into a world of his own. His prognosis quickly went from gloomy to downright grim. When he was three, the goal the experts set for him was the hope that he’d be able to tie his own shoes at sixteen." (Location 91-95)

The Spark is the story of how Kristine went from the diagnoses that Jake would never speak or tie his shoes to his being paid for advanced degree college research at age 12. Kristine believes that her journey with her remarkable son is due to "the power of hope and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we keep our minds open and learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child." (Location 97)

She firmly believes that focusing on what a child diagnosed with autism can do and what they enjoy, rather than their limitations, can help any child achieve goals beyond the expected. Kristine ran a daycare, and in the evenings she held special classes to support and teach local special needs children how to go to school. She also has a community program she designed to help these kids experience sports in a way that they can participate.

Although this is described as a memoir about her son, it really is about Kristine Barnett. And, at times, I found Kristine's voice in this account bordering self-righteousness and superiority. There in lies some of the issues I had with The Spark. Now, admittedly some of my issues are because I am likely not Kristine's target audience. First, I am currently working in public school special education. For all the side-stepping around her true feelings, it was quite clear that she does not respect SPED personnel. However, some of her issues could have been resolved with the public schools had she entered into meetings with a positive frame of mind along with her assertiveness, rather than the combative attitude her interactions seem to have taken.

Then, later, she makes it clear that her husband wanted his kids to experience the normal childhood he had, so home schooling was not an option. I home schooled my kids through high school - very successfully too. This kind of comment always makes me shake my head. Home schooled kids have plenty of opportunities to experience what kids in other schools experience, and perhaps more time and freedom to do so while parents tailor their educational needs to best fit them.

What I really wanted to read about was what she did do - not just the struggles, but the successes. She mentions she had great success and gives a few individual examples, but, really, just in passing. If she is having such phenomenal success with helping autistic kids adjust, then this, along with the success story of her son, should have been the focus of this book. There was a lot of repeating that play is important and that parents need to follow what kids are interested in - but most parents understand and do that already. (Even most special ed programs do that.)

I had an advanced reading copy and so some of the errors and leaps in the book could have been corrected (like going from jobless and broke to it's all A-okay again without much explanation), as well as some of the little snips (like toward public school SPED). Perhaps I just need to admit that this story, as interesting and appealing as it is, simply isn't told in a manner that I can take seriously. I think a good book could be found in Jake's story, but, for me, this wasn't quite it.

Even with these complaints, The Spark is enjoyable and may help give other parents hope and ideas that might work with their children (but don't expect too many new ideas). Other advanced readers are giving it all five stars, so my feelings likely are not going to be the norm here.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.


No comments: