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The Spark: Finding The Hidden Genius In A Profoundly Autistic Boy

9780812993370C.R. writes:

Research seems to show that autism is reaching epidemic proportions.

Whatever the causes (and we’ve written about some strong correlations) the fact remains: Autism’s here to stay—at least for a while. It’s something that those with autism and their families, especially parents, have to learn to live with.

Temple Grandin, John Robison (who we interview here) and others have written excellent books on their experiences living life on the autism spectrum, and have helped neurotypicals appreciate the gifts that autism (and Asperger’s) can bring.

Temple Grandin’s mother was supportive of her, John Robison’s, not so much. Yet both have made stunning achievements. From them we learn what it’s like to grow up on the autism spectrum.

But what does it take to parent a child with autism?

For some, it’s a detective game of cause and effect (such as dietary causes and solutions), a battle-plan of coping strategies and interventions (physical, emotional, intellectual) , and plenty of love. One of the most recent crop of books on autism was written by a mother of a child with autism, child prodigy Jacob Barnett, who is now, fourteen.

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. 

The book is The Spark and it’s the well-written tale of how Kristine Barnett and her husband, Michael, not only “managed” and “coped” with Jacob’s autism, but embraced it. Kristine herself, while not the astrophysics genius her son is, has an intuitive genius with children and education that professional educators and therapists could learn from.

Though diagnosed with profound autism as a toddler—the “experts” said Jacob would never be able to read, for example—his mother recognized that there was a spark in him. She saw that most of the therapists were trying to “get” Jacob to do things he didn’t want to do (put slot A in slot B).

But Kristine felt that this wasn’t the way to reach him. Rather than leading Jacob, she allowed him to lead her. She was able to discern what held his interest (light, shadows, patterns, numbers) and nurture his passions by means of numerous highly creative interventions, interventions that were “play” for him. Kristine utilized the fact that often individuals with autism (and Asperger’s) tend to have one or more areas of extreme interest,  all-consuming passions.

Whatever Jacob loved, that’s what his mother surrounded him with. She allowed, even encouraged him to actively wallow in his obsessions (with breaks to have a “childhood”). She calls her theory—and her form of therapy—Muchness. 

All this muchness allowed Jacob to engage. He went from being a withdrawn “profoundly autistic” boy to being a child prodigy, able to interact with the world (he teaches undergraduate college students!) and able to make and keep friends.

Kristine Barnett is as much of a marvel as her son. She ran a full-time daycare center in her home and once she saw that her interventions with Jacob were working, she opened a program for autistic children in the evenings, for no charge, despite the fact that the family could have used the income.

Parents raved about her programs. Kristine spent time in her kitchen with one girl, Katy, a severely autistic teen whose parents were afraid would be dependent on them her entire life, and soon the girl was baking masterpieces. Today she has a job as a professional baker.

Another boy, Reuben, was obsessed with boats, so Kristine spent months with him learning about various types of boats, classifying them, writing reports on them, building models of them. His love of boats led him to read books on boats eventually (he couldn’t read before).

And, even though his therapists said his hand-eye coordination was so poor he’d never learn to write or draw, because he was so in love with his boat models, he managed to paint them, which required very finely tuned painting skills, skills many adults find difficult. He (and Kristine) had proved the experts wrong.

Kristine also set up a sports program for children with autism. For Kristine, having a child in college at the age of ten and being declared smarter than Einstein wasn’t as rewarding as having a child who could make friends, learn teamwork, and have an emotionally rich life.

I expected to be wowed by Jacob—and I was—but the story of a loving family, who cares about people more than status or material things, really made The Spark, difficult to put down. Despite serious hardships—serious illness (Kristine has lupus and had a stroke), struggles with unemployment and poverty, and of course, the challenges of autism, the Barnett’s “have their heads on straight”.

This is rare, or at least, rarer than it should be. People like the Barnetts, who despite their generosity and kindness, still come across like real people and this is what made The Spark an inspiration for me.

Therapy Soup Rating for The Spark: 5 Cups of Soup. Highly recommended. 



The Spark: Finding The Hidden Genius In A Profoundly Autistic Boy

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2013). The Spark: Finding The Hidden Genius In A Profoundly Autistic Boy. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 17, 2018, from


Last updated: 12 Aug 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Aug 2013
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