At age fourteen, Jake Barnett is one of the world’s leading astrophysicists. He is a graduate student and published researcher at Indiana University, where he is working on an original theory in relativity which is expected to put him in line for the Nobel Prize.
At age three, Jake was diagnosed with autism. Although he had been an early talker, he stopped making eye contact and did not speak a single word for eighteen months. He spent many hours of the day staring at a blank wall. Therapists and special education teachers told his mother, Kristine, that he would never learn to read, that the most she could hope for was that he would learn to tie his shoes by age sixteen.
Although Kristine recognized the importance of therapy sessions for an autistic child, she noticed that the sessions were always focused on things that Jake couldn’t or wouldn’t do. She decided to give him opportunities and encouragement to do the things he enjoyed doing.
When Jake made webs of colored string so huge and complex that Kristine could not get past them to go into her kitchen, she never complained, but noticed how beautifully patterned they were. When Jake dumped out all the boxes of cereal in the house and refilled them with styrofoam balls, she let him. How could she know at the time that he was calculating volume?
Eventually, she came to see that in school and therapy sessions, Jake literally had been too bored to pay attention. When he seemed to be staring at the blank wall behind the therapist, he was actually observing the play of light and shadows. He became so adept at noticing these patterns that he put himself to bed every night at precisely the same time (even after his parents hid every clock in the house) using his own “shadow clock.” Indeed, the interplay of light and time later became the basis for his groundbreaking theory in physics. He was completely uninterested in things like social niceties and the wooden block puzzles the therapists tried to get him to do.
Once he had time to do what he loved, Jake became more able and willing to do things that were less interesting, but that other people believed were important—things like sleeping, eating, and interacting cooperatively with others. Now he has many friends, plays basketball, chats easily with his younger brothers, tutors his fellow college students, navigates a downtown university campus alone, and gives lectures on his theory.
Nurturing our “spark” can help us become well-rounded, happy, and fulfilled individuals like Jake. However, it takes another kind of genius—like his mom, Kristine—to help bring out the best in us.