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‘Spark’ chronicles autistic boy’s amazing journey

Let us now praise brave women, who fight as hard as they possibly can for their children with autism – and then write a book about it.

Meet Kristine Barnett.

She’s a mother of three kids from rural Indiana, happily married to her husband, Michael, who has worked at Target and Circuit City. Barnett, raised Amish, is one other thing you should know about: a dynamo, driven by passion to turn autism from a frightening life sentence for American children to a place of opportunity and hope.

Barnett was shocked when her eldest son, Jacob, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. Early on, Jake had seemed so bright – almost unusually smart. But he had turned a corner, in his infancy, and began to regress and withdraw into himself. Experts said that Jake would never be able to handle basic tasks, let alone a typical school classroom.

This is Barnett’s story of her son, and what happened to him, on his journey with autism. It is also, even more movingly, the story of what Barnett did to save Jake – and reclaim for him a life he was born to lead.

This is where you should know that Jacob Barnett has been measured as having an IQ higher than Albert Einstein.

Not only a kid carrying a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, Jake is also a genius who seems to have startling aptitude for math, physics and science. Jake Barnett is now 14, and working on his Ph.D. in physics. (Press materials with the book say this family’s story has been optioned for film rights by Warner Brothers, and no wonder.)

Kristine Barnett’s personal story, which forms the backbone of “The Spark,” is that of a Midwestern mom – for years she ran a day care in her garage to make ends meet – who refused to give up on her son after his sobering diagnosis.

The indefatigable Barnett, encouraged by her husband, who comes off as an amazing father in this book, decided to focus – after beating back her feelings of alarm and fear about autism – on what she knew to be the true Jacob: a lively, smart, lovable little boy, buried somewhere beneath the silences and tantrums that the disorder can bring in its wake.

Barnett opted for an instinct-based approach to Jake’s autism. That is, she followed hers – even when her gut feelings flew in the face of what therapists, doctors and educators told her about Jake.

She describes in detail in “The Spark” the way that she dug deep enough to uncover the “spark” that still flickered within her son. They followed his obsessions, going to the planetarium countless times, attending lectures on astronomy, gazing at the stars in the Indiana sky. They took time to play and wander the neighborhood, memorizing the license plates of the neighbors’ cars. Barnett even found a way to make peer-group friends for her son, knowing that social skills can be one of the toughest challenges for a kid dealing with autism. (Setting up a boys’ cave in his room, filled with video games and bags of snacks, did the trick.)

This all ran counter to what Barnett said she had been told by the therapists and other experts who had seen and worked with Jake: that only intensive therapies at a very early age, jammed into as many daylight hours as possible, would help her son reach whatever potential he had.

Her strategy worked. Jake entered kindergarten, after much practice at home, as a typical student. He kept up with his classmates. He got to play sports and do activities with other kids, thanks to leagues and a recreation center that the Barnetts and other parents opened for autistic kids in their area.

Jake did so well that he began taking college classes – and developing theories in physics – before he was 10.

Most touching are the chapters devoted to the Barnetts’ work with other families with children with autism, including the parts about “Little Light,” an autism group for kids and their parents started by Kristine, and “Jacob’s Place,” a community center for special-needs kids that the Barnetts currently run. “The Spark” comes at a crucial point in the nation’s conversation about autism, which is now reaching, according to the latest numbers, 1 in 88 children.

“The Spark” will do best if it makes us think carefully about autism’s effect on families, and about the different ways that young children with the disorder are raised and parented.

Barnett’s path is not for everyone. For her family, though, it has been – and continues to be – a surprising, revealing ride.

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius

By Kristine Barnett

Random House

250 pages, $25

Charity Vogel is a News reporter and the manager of the News Book Club.