“If a child who was never supposed to talk or read can rise to such improbable heights, imagine what children without such challenges might achieve, and how far they might soar if we encouraged them to unfurl their wings—past any horizon, past even our wildest expectations.” Kristine Barnett, from The Spark.

When a team of child development experts told Kristine Barnett that her 2-year-old son Jacob might never be able to tie his own shoes, she had no idea that 14 years later, he’d be walking in the intellectual footsteps of geniuses like Einstein and Newton. Initially devastated to see her son retreat into his own world—he suddenly stopped speaking and making eye contact—Kristine was determined to bring him back.

In The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, Kristine traces her son’s remarkable story from birth to the startling discovery of his 189 IQ.

“Celebrating your children’s passions rather than redirecting them, especially when those passions don’t line up neatly with a checklist for future success, can feel like jumping off a cliff. It certainly did for me,” Kristine writes. “But that leap of faith is necessary if your kids are going to fly.”

Kristine followed suggested therapy plans, but one summer she took Jacob out of therapy and special-education preschool and tried to reach him through play. Jacob had a couple of obsessions—most notably an oversized astronomy book—and became transfixed with staring up at the stars. Kristine took him to a local observatory and was stunned when her three-and-a-half-year-old nonverbal child began discussing lunar gravities with the lecturing professor.

Another day Kristine heard Jacob recite numbers he read on passing trucks, then tack on another long number at the end.

“I practically drove off the road (when) I figured out the final number was the sum of the ten digits in the phone number,” she says.

At age 8, Jacob began studying astrophysics at Purdue University. At 12, he was paid to do scientific research. 60 Minutes profiled him at 13.
Kristine believes that if she hadn’t followed her gut, Jacob may have stayed lost in what she describes as “the gaping, gray uncertainty of Autism.” Yet when she first began speaking about the potential locked within children with Autism, she received a lot of strange looks.

“People really thought I was crazy,” she recalls. “Even though we’ve made tremendous gains, there’s still a lot of work to be done in understanding children with Autism, and how beautiful their minds are. My goal every day is to shift our focus off of the obstacles, and celebrate what their capabilities are.” Kristine moved her family to a farm just outside Waterloo, Ontario so Jacob could attend a graduate program at the Perimeter Institute for Advanced Theoretical Physics, where he is working on an original theory in the field of relativity that experts have predicted could win him a Nobel Prize someday. Jacob’s 2012 TEDxTeen talk, “Forget What You Know” has had more than three million hits. The Spark is being developed into a movie.

While Jacob’s gifts may be unique, Kristine believes his story highlights the possibility of tapping the true potential that lies within every child.

Wendy Helfenbaum is a writer and television producer who writes extensively about education.