Friday 18 October 2019

My son,the genius

Jacob Barnett was diagnosed with severe autism.
Jacob Barnett was diagnosed with severe autism.
Dristine Barnett could not imagine her son Jacob's success when he was diagnosed with severe autism.

Tanya Sweeney

Jacob Barnett was diagnosed with severe autism as a child, but he may yet win a Nobel Prize for his theory on astrophysics. Tanya Sweeney talks to his mother about raising the next Einstein

Every parent thinks that their child is one in a million, but Kristine Barnett can lay claim to this. When your child is touted as the next Einstein or Nobel Prize winner, perhaps 'one in a million' is a superlative that doesn't quite do justice.

At 14, Kristine's son Jacob teaches calculus at a local university in Indianapolis, has published several academic papers and is on his way to completing a PhD in quantum physics – as well as attempting (and, according to some, succeeding) to disprove Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

At nine, he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may some day put him in line for a Nobel Prize; around the same time, he taught himself calculus in two weeks for fun.

Every year in the US, five or so children are born who exhibit characteristics of being profoundly gifted – often with an IQ that exceeds 175. So far, so extraordinary. But what makes Jacob and Kristine's tale all the more astonishing is the fact that as a young child, Jacob was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism.

Doctors told Kristine that their unresponsive child would barely learn to tie his own shoes, much less talk in coherent sentences.

Fast forward over a decade and Jacob would not only talk, but also flourish on the stage of the renowned TedxTeen talk circuit. Sure enough, Jacob was the talk of the conference, speaking with charm and confidence about his remarkable start in life.

Amid the accolades and the myriad achievements, Kristine admits that this has been her most surreal moment yet.

"Everyone asks me about his work, but I'm so proud of his Tedx talk. I was in the audience in tears," she says. "It was my proudest moment as his mom. It hadn't been a decade since I was told he wouldn't talk."

Fourteen years ago, when Kristine and her husband Michael were thinking of starting a family, her dream was to have a house full of children. A child daycare-centre owner, Kristine had big dreams for her first little boy.

"When Jacob was born he was a happy, alert and engaging little boy, so we got to experience all those great things and create those memories," she says.

"Later [as he would show signs of autism], it was heartbreaking because we knew that this had once been a part of him."

At the age of 16 months, Jacob began to withdraw and become uncommunicative. He would go off into corners and thumb through books. At the time, Kristine had no idea he was reading.

"We took it as a sign of independence originally, but he was withdrawing into his own world day by day and the warning signs soon began to show," she explains.

Doctors diagnosed autism, and soon Jacob was attending full-time therapy with a battery of experts, all of whom were unaware of the child genius lurking below the surface.

Add to this the hours of standard therapy and attempting to hold down full-time jobs, and Kristine admits that it was an exhausting and frustrating time for her and Michael.

"At the time, Jacob was like every other child with autism – he was unable to say 'mommy' or 'daddy', and didn't look us in the eyes. We were told to put money aside because Jacob would need ongoing care in adult life."

"He loved his little alphabet cards, but we were told we'd not need to worry about the alphabet with Jacob. Naturally, it was devastating. We began treatment protocol prescribed to all children with autism, and there was 40 hours of therapy a week on top of that with a developmental therapist, occupational speech therapist, physical therapist, neurologist and psychologist.

"Jacob was always tired and frustrated, and it was tremendously exhausting. I'd hold it all together by day and let myself cry in the shower."

In words that should ring true with any parent of an autistic child, Kristine sums up the experience thus:

"Every parent has a moment of inattention while shopping, and by the time you turn back around your child is nowhere in sight, having vanished into thin air. That feeling of mounting terror that claws at your throat as you wildly start calling his or her name – that moment is what it feels like to watch your child disappear into the dark well of autism.

"But instead of a few terrible seconds before that little face pops out from behind a rack of sweatpants, the moment of powerlessness and desperation can last for years, or a lifetime."

Somewhere along the way, Kristine followed her maternal instincts and decided to forego the special education regime to give Jacob something she thought might be more enriching – a childhood.

"At night, after the therapists left, I began sneaking out with Jacob," recalls Kristine. "We ate popsicles, listened to jazz and looked up at the stars. I had no aspirations that he would even talk."

But then something curious happened: Jacob began to talk about the stars – and not in the way a typical toddler might.

"The stars were the gateway into his world," she says. "I began to realise that Jacob thought that maths and astronomy were beautiful. He then began to become more communicative with others."

Experts are still baffled by his exponential progress from severely autistic child to profoundly gifted prodigy.

"I continue to be surprised to this day by what Jacob is doing," says Kristine. "I'm just as astonished as anyone else. To be his mom and watch him go from that bleak place to where he is now was unbelievable.

"I've applied this to other autistic children [via her charity Jacob's Place, which helps other autistic children]. They did not have to be prodigies to find the thing they loved and make huge progress. And the fact that Jacob has overcome his condition to this level has brought a tremendous amount of hope to the parents of these children."

She adds: "We spend so much time trying to get children with autism into our world, but no one wants to take time to get into their worlds. You'll find beautiful and remarkable things there, so I can see why they don't want to get out of that world.

"Every child is different. There's a tendency to rush in and fix the difference, without letting them just be."

In Jacob's world, maths is fun and comes naturally; he doesn't even pick up his pay cheques from the university because he can't believe someone would pay him to talk about what he loves.

Encouraged by Kristine, Jacob's two younger brothers are also blazing their own trails: 12-year-old Wes is obsessed with meteorology and experimental science, while Ethan (nine) is more into biochemistry and runs a biochemical engineering lab out of the family home.

Naturally, she has been painted as a pushy mum.

"If I had a child who was into music, I'd buy them a piano and take them to concerts, so this is my version of that," she says. "Stop learning about things you love and learn by doing it and being active in it. The only goal for all of my kids is happiness. It's what made me do what I did in the beginning."

For all Jacob's advances, the boy they call 'the next Einstein' still has chores around the house. Kristine is trying her best to afford him a regular life.

"If I knew how to get them to do their housework, my life would be complete," she laughs. "They never pick up their socks or make their beds. Jacob's a typical teenager in that respect. He has a close group of friends and he has had girlfriends, but doesn't have one right now. He has the same gang of friends from childhood and they drive four-wheelers and surf YouTube."

From across the room, Jacob admonishes his mum for pointing out his single status – "he says he doesn't want the attention if that comes out".

Sure enough, he is your average teen: polite and articulate, yet with flashes of reticence. The brouhaha surrounding his intelligence is "cool".

"Sorry I can't give the same kind of long answers as my mom," he says. "It's pretty nice though to talk about things that matter to you. But at home I like to fish in a pond near our house, play SimCity and listen to hip-hop. I mean, who doesn't like listening to hip-hop?"

As to his success as a scientist, he is nonchalant: "I'm motivated. I studied hard. I found something I like and I went for it."

In the next breath he asks, "So, do you want to talk to me about my research?", seemingly oblivious to the notion that his teachings will go over many people's heads.

Naturally, Hollywood started making enquiries about Jacob's life story, and the rights to Kristine's book, 'The Spark', have been snapped up by Warner Brothers.

Jacob is in a position to do anything he wants in life, and watching this 14-year-old's science career unfold will certainly be compelling.

Does Kristine ever worry about the future for her child – a child who is constantly being told that the sky is the limit?

"I have wondered, 'Is this life going to be hard for him?' Then, I realised maths is like playing for him," she says.

"He does it in his sleep, on vacation, everywhere. I realised how much fun he's truly having.

"It's like watching Michelangelo paint. I don't worry he'll become bored, because it will just continue to flow out of him like art."

'The Spark' by Kristine Barnett is published by Penguin

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