The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett, recounts her story as a mother of a child diagnosed with Asperger’s. Kristine narrates how she “lost” her son Jake to autism and her family’s journey to get him back.
Jake worked with experts at home and in school, but progress was lacking, and she feared they were going to lose Jake completely.
On top of managing her daycare during the day, she spent nights having therapy sessions with Jake, even opening her doors to other children with autism.
She believed that, while the children were on different levels and each had their own unique abilities, it was important to connect with a child through his or her interests.
Her philosophy was, “instead of hammering away at all the tasks these kids couldn’t do, I thought we’d start with what they wanted to do” (p. 67).
Education is not a one-size-fits-all, most especially for children with special needs. This is exactly what frustrated Kristine and made her decide to pull Jake out of school.
She was not seeing any progress in Jake and it seemed as if his preschool teacher had already given up on him.
The last straw was when Jake’s teacher no longer allowed him to bring his alphabet cards to school.
Kristine took this as a sign that Jake’s teacher felt he would not learn anything and that he was never going to read.
However, though readers will never really know how that conversation took place, it may also have been a misunderstanding. Perhaps Jake found comfort in his alphabet cards but was becoming too dependent on it, therefore his teacher wanted to wean him from it.
The conversation between Kristine and Jake’s preschool teacher was a crucial turning point. While her decision to pull Jake out of school and teach him herself is truly admirable and inspiring, it was also evident that even as Jake grew older and went back to school, she no longer trusted the system.
When invited to discuss Jake’s IEP, she was always against it nor did she see any importance for it. It is undeniable that there are instances when the practices and systems put in place may not be work for a child, or times when schools could do more to provide for their needs; however, the story somehow gives a negative impression of special education in public schools. The conflict she had with special education in public schools reflects how crucial it is for parents, specialists, and schools to work together in order for the child to be successful.
Jake was extremely interested in astronomy and Kristine tried to ignite that passion by taking him to the planetarium. Their planetarium trips eventually led to Jake attending college-level astronomy classes at eight years old. This journey was not easy and the Barnetts dealt with several setbacks, such as financial problems, health issues, and on top of that, having to decide whether to send Jake to college or keep him in fifth grade. In spite all these, Kristine never stopped finding ways to reach out to Jake and the other children.
A central theme in the book is the importance of focusing on a child’s passion in order to unlock his or her full potential. Kristine worked with several children and connected with them through their interests. She wrote, “any child will outperform your expectations if you can find a way to feed his or her passion” (p. 73).
Often times there is too much focus on the disabilities, people forget to see the abilities. It is not always about filling the gaps. The Spark is unquestionably a touching story and a must-read for every parent of a child with autism.
The path the Barnetts took is certainly not one that will work for all families. While parts of it may be debatable, especially the portrayal of public schools, the Barnetts’ journey is still admirable. It highlights the importance of not closing doors on children with special needs, and instead figuring out what interests them and seeing what opportunities those doors hold.
The Spark is testament to a parent’s unconditional love and the great lengths one will go to help their child succeed.
Barnett, K. (2013). The spark: A Mother’s story of nurturing, genius, and Autism. [Kindle].
Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/The-Spark-Mothers-Nurturing-Genius/dp/0812993373
This article was featured in Issue 38 – Keeping ASD Kids Healthy