Autism, a child's genius and a family's journey

The spark feature jacob and mom.jpg

First aired on The Current 30/05/13

the spark.jpgJacob Barnett is a unique 15-year-old. When he was 10, he tested mathematically at the level of a PhD student in astrophysics. He's currently studying at the level of a post-graduate student. And he's working on a theory in astrophysics where there are already predictions his ideas will eventually earn him a Nobel Prize. 

But eight years before that, when he was two years old, doctors told his mom that he'd never be able to function properly in society. They warned he might never be able to make eye contact or speak directly to his parents. Jacob was diagnosed with autism. In a new book called The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius, Jacob's mom Kristine Barnett writes about how she made the decision to foster Jacob's autistic traits rather than try to correct them. 

Kristine started to notice that something was different about Jacob at a very young age. "Even as a young baby, he certainly was preoccupied with things that other babies around him [weren't]. I'd just never seen other babies do those sorts of things. One thing was we had a duvet on our bed that was plaid and he would cry if we went away from the plaid. So I took to wearing plaid shirts," she told The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti. "So much in the way that mom's will bring pacifiers around for their babies, I always had to have a scrap of plaid or he would be in a complete meltdown." 

Kristine goes on to explain that at the beginning she followed the doctor's orders about Jacob's diagnosis, she put him in therapy that lasted upwards of 60 hours per week. "His diagnosis kept being revised and it got worse and worse to the point where they said, 'your son has a pervasive developmental disorder. This is autism and it will be with him for the rest of his life. He will probably never talk to you again. He will not be able to was just terrifying to me, as a mom."

But after the shock of the diagnosis started to wear off, Kristine says she began to pay closer attention to the behaviour that the doctors found problematic in Jacob. "I think Jacob sees the world in a very different way, and it's very beautiful. What seemed to be these preoccupations with shapes and patterns turned into math and science and on his own. When I looked up what he was doing as a little boy, he would be discovering some of the things that great scientists had discovered before him." 

Kristine made a decision that would be controversial to both the rest of her family and the doctors looking after Jacob. She took him out of therapy, and decided to play with him --indulging all of his curious behaviour. "In my efforts to help him we were not giving him time to have a childhood," she said.

And while Jacob's autism became more pronounced, so did his intelligence. Jacob enrolled in university at the age of 11. He's been working on his theory, PT Symmetry. "Basically it's a quantum system that if you reverse it under both time and space inversions it remains the same. But if you just revert it under space it's not the same," he explained. And when asked about his autism, he responded with pride that it is a defining part of his character. Like his mom, Jacob sees his autism directly linked to his sharp intelligence. "In my opinion, autism is just a sense of focus," he said. Really, most of the autistic children are off and they're focusing on some subject. Although the exact technicalities of what their interests are vary quite a lot, I've seen some autistic people who end up becoming very successful engineers, very successful computer scientists...and if you narrow what it is they're doing you will see amazing things."

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