Jacob’s story may sound familiar. After a healthy babyhood, he began to change as his second birthday approached. His speech slowed and then stopped. He ignored his peers and parents. He developed unusual obsessive patterns, gazing at sunlight, waving his hands. He was eventually diagnosed, as you might have guessed, with autism. And so entered experts for speech development, motor skills, life skills. They announced to mother Kristine Barnett that Jacob would never read. In fact, he’d be lucky to tie his shoes.
Yet Barnett was not convinced by the experts. She paid attention to the way her son loved alphabet cards, to his interest in the sky, and wondered, why are we paying attention to what he can’t do rather than what he can do? And then she decided—against the advice of his educators and her husband—to prepare Jacob for mainstream kindergarten herself.
The rest of Jacob’s story spills forth like a fairy tale: He stops many disruptive behaviors, embraces his giftedness, finds friends, responds to his parents and begins attending college at the tender age of 9. While his remarkable trajectory may be discouraging to families of severely autistic children who have not made the same strides, the real pleasure of The Spark does not lie in Jacob’s story alone but in his mother’s unwavering view that each child has tremendous promise, an innate spark, which can be ignited and nurtured by perceptive parents.
Barnett’s devotion to her son will stir readers to take a closer look at their own children and loved ones, as will her singular focus on providing meaningful experiences for her boy. After a day of therapy, she packs up the then-silent Jacob, drives out to the countryside, turns on the radio and dances with him under the stars. The two share a popsicle while sitting on the hood of the car. She writes, “Indulging the senses isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. We have to walk barefoot in the grass. . . . We have to lie on our backs and feel the sun on our faces.” These experiences open us up to our very humanity. In this way, Barnett’s inspiring story is really relevant to all of us.