Kristine Barnett, author of The Spark, didn't let an autism diagnosis keep her son Jacob from realizing his potential. Here are her tips, gleaned from raising a gifted special-needs child.
This story was originally published in 2013. Jacob is now 18 years old and in 2016 was reported to be a Ph.D. student at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. His mother, Kristine, spoke to WorkingMother.com about how she raised a gifted child.
Kristine's son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s. At age 9 he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize. At the age of 12 he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But his achievements would never have happened without the hard work and dedication of his mother.
Kristine pulled Jake, who was diagnosed with autism, 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 ran out of her garage, Kristine resolved to follow and fuel Jacob’s “spark”—his passionate interests, even if she could not make sense of them. 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) and the importance of play, helped Kristine overcome “impossible” odds. Only years later would she—and the experts—realize that Jake’s intense preoccupation with things like shadows on the wall and plaid fabric had been his gateway to math, astronomy, and physics.
Here, Kristine shares her parenting advice.
1. Genius is more common than you think.
There is likely a genius in every home room across America. Let your child follow his own passion. If he’s good at one thing and bad at another, don’t focus on what he CAN’T do. Focus on what he CAN do. How many parents hire math tutors when their child is doing poorly in math? What if that child has a passion for English? Do parents encourage them to write plays and short stories or do they coast thinking that he’s fine in English, he doesn’t need help with it. What genius are we ignoring as we focus on the negative? Passions in children must be cultivated. Parents are unwittingly stomping down genius and potential in children.
2. Being a Tiger Mom can be detrimental to your child.
Make time for play. Experts suggested hours and hours of therapy to help Jacob deal with his diagnosis of autism. The result was a grueling day that left little time for fun and relaxation. After intense conventional treatment, Jacob was not improving. In fact, he was getting worse. I decided that I couldn’t just sit back and watch my child lose his childhood in countless therapy sessions. We started to make time for play. I took Jacob outside on a warm summer nights. We looked at the stars and ate popsicles. We danced! I took him to the planetarium because he loved being there. Slowly Jacob began to relax and to reconnect with other humans. I wanted to do something that most people take for granted and that many parents of special needs children lose sight of: make time for a normal childhood. When a problem becomes overwhelming, take time to NOT focus on it. Take time to remember that your child is just a child.
3. Is the pressure to be well-rounded really worth it?
Today’s parents over schedule kids with a variety of activities—dance, sports, music, foreign language but what does your child really excel at? If you spent more time on what your child really wanted to do, how far could they go with that one skill?
4. Trust your right as a parent to disagree.
You, and only you, know your child best. An educator told me that Jacob shouldn’t carry the alphabet cards he loved around with him everywhere because Jacob would never learn how to read anyway. The teachers asked that Jacob stop bringing them to class with him because they saw them as a distraction. I saw no harm in Jacob playing with the alphabet cards he loved. Why should I take something harmless my child loves away from him? I knew that Jacob loved those cards and that eventually we'd be able to turn that love into learning. Through many different creative exercises that we tried based on Jacob’s comfort and interest, he did learn how to read! Another expert told me that my son would likely never be able to tie his own shoes. I refused to accept this. I pulled him out of conventional school and special ed programs, and taught him at home. I let him follow his own passions. Jacob couldn’t tie his shoes but he loved to play with string. I let him play with yarn for hours. He decorated her entire kitchen. What she didn’t realize at the time was that Jacob was exploring his own sophisticated ideas of shapes and space. He’s now pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at the age of 14! Trust your instinct. It is always better than what an expert will tell you about your child.
5. Don’t let statistics define you.
If your child is facing a challenge, don’t let statistics overwhelm and frighten you so that they define your child. Don’t participate in the statistics. Don’t let your experience be labeled by others. Your child is a unique individual. There are a lot of scary statistics out there about developmental delays and challenges for children. Engage on a one on one level, define your own experience. Countless experts told me that Jacob wouldn’t talk, read, or do any basic functions. If there were ever times to give up, I was there more than once.
Don’t participate in the statistics. Don’t let your experience be labeled by others. Your child is a unique individual.
6. How to really avoid temper tantrums.
Don’t impose a structure of learning on your child that your child is rejecting. Work within the structures that your child likes. Adjust your perspective to see the world how your child sees it. Work with him, not against him. Tantrums are a sign of frustration that your child isn’t doing what he wants to do. Trust your child’s ability to communicate with you on his own level. Set limits while also encouraging your child to really follow what he loves to do, not what you think he should love to do.****
7. Be flexible. See what works.
What works is often very simple and inexpensive. Your child may be telling you more in their own way than any expert is able to tell you. Jacob is a genius so it is not fair to compare all children to him; however, all children do communicate in some way. My two younger sons have both placed out of high school math. Are they all geniuses or are they simply responding to a parent who is nurturing their potential? I ran a daycare for special needs and non-special needs children, and my approach was highly successful with many kids. I've met countless parents who were all frustrated at the lack of progress their children were making. They had exhausted themselves and their resources at every expensive remedy and school out there, only to end up at the home garage, where I ran my daycare. Take the time and patience to understand what your child is telling you about what they love and what they dislike. An expert may sound impressive and authoritative but at the end of the day, you can’t impose many lofty ideas onto a child who is not responding. Much of parenting is trial and error. If you are using a technique that isn’t working, time to change strategy. See what makes your child happy and less stressful. In the end, this is what will make you as a parent happy too!
8. Sensory Integration Therapy.
How detached from our world are we? Healing through our senses is the most exciting approach to becoming more whole individuals. What does it mean? How does it apply to us? It applies to all people, not just children. We are all just too busy. Success is often measured by how much you get done in one day. You forget, you become a robot, you stop experiencing the world, detaching yourself from the environment, causing stress etc. We wear a coat because we know we’re supposed to, not because we go outside and feel that it’s cold. Are we participating in the environment that we live in anymore? Steve Jobs had an apricot orchard. Sensory therapy is used with kids with autism and other sensory processing disorders. I saw the real benefit of this with Jacob. Reattaching him to the world around him was my main goal. I would have done anything to see him engaged, would have brought a sand box inside the house, if it had helped! Who cares about the mess or the official therapies. I wanted to see my son connect with his world.
The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, was released on April 9, 2013. The mother and son now run a website, JacobBarnett.com, dedicated to The Spark method of "nurturing genius" and spreading autism awareness.
Written by kelli daley for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.