Life / Health

How one mother took her son out of special education and defied the experts on autism

When Kristine Barnett’s autistic son was three years old, she was told he would never learn to read. Now, at 14, Jacob is taking graduate-level classes at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Before leaving fifth grade for college, Jacob taught himself calculus, started working on an original theory in astrophysics and, several months after being told he couldn’t, taught himself how to read.

“He’s defied not just the experts on autism, but the experts on prodigy. He’s social, relatable, he has friends,” said Barnett, author of The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius (Random House of Canada Limited).

Barnett’s novel, which was released in April, chronicles her journey with Jacob, who was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism as a toddler.

“The delays (experts) saw on social skills in daily functioning were so significant. Making eye contact is a skill a two-month- old has. Jacob was probably seven before he started to make eye contact again,” said Barnett, who lives in Indiana.

After realizing how low experts set the bar for her child, Barnett decided to take Jacob out of special education and work with him herself, a decision even her husband was against.

“That was the scariest decision I’ve ever made in my life,” she said. “People just really thought I was nuts.”

But Barnett was determined. By focusing on the things Jacob could do, like create a map from memory with Q-tips, Barnett was able to teach her son to do the things he couldn’t, like have a conversation.

It was this philosophy that encouraged Barnett to write The Spark.

“The only person who is truly an expert in their child is the parent. I really believe in parents. We have the capacity to know what works for our child. I wanted to give moms the permission to follow their child’s instincts,” she said.

Writing The Spark wasn’t always easy for Barnett.

“I tried to be very open and transparent,” she said.

This meant discussing the family’s serious financial issues during the recession and the death of one of Jacob’s close friends, an autistic boy named Christopher who was hit by a school bus.

Jacob was supportive through the writing process.

“It’s kind of fun to see him joking about revisiting these childhood memories. Telling jokes about things I was so worried about and how he wasn’t worried at all. He was just doing his thing,” Barnett said.

To learn more

Temple Grandin is another advocate of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses when it comes to treating autism. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism before much was known about the disorder, co-wrote The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, with Richard Panek.

The book, published by Thomas Allen & Son, does exactly what its title suggests. Grandin, a professor and doctor of animal science, explores how brain science is linked to behaviour while weaving in her own experiences. For more information, visit and search for the title.

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