29/04/2014 15:51 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

The Spark Author Kristine Barnett Talks To Parentdish


If you're a parent and you haven't yet heard of The Spark, you probably will do soon.

The book, out this May, is the unbelievable true story of Kristine Barnett, a working class American mother who discovered her learning-disabled son Jacob was, in fact, a genius.

The film rights have been snapped up by Warner Bros and the book is going viral among parents across the world.

When I first heard about The Spark, I was cynical. I thought this would be a story of a pushy mother determined to get her autistic son to pass IQ tests and be someone he was not.

But as soon as I started reading, I realised that was not the case at all. Far from it - Kristine is a very likeable mother who simply wanted her son to be happy.

When he was diagnosed at two with autism, Kristine was told by experienced professionals that Jacob was 'retarded' and she shouldn't bother to teach him the alphabet; that the goal would be for his to one day dress himself. He was withdrawn and uncommunicative and she struggled to help him through endless, boring hours of dumbed-down special needs tutoring, which he hated.

A mother of three sons, whose second child, Wesley, also had special needs due to serious health problems, Kristine's life was a nightmare.

She recalls: "I really did not know that we would all even make it though. I went to bed each night exhausted and sometimes I would just go in my shower and cry until the water ran cold.


It is very hard to have your sense of hope for your children constantly taken from you by the expectations others have.


Then, one day, Kristine decided enough was enough. She took a huge risk and followed what she calls her 'mother gut instinct' by allowing Jacob to stop the tutoring and instead follow his passions, his 'spark' - silent time engrossed in learning about maths, astonomy and physics.

And he blossomed - in time, becoming so advanced in his favourite subjects that he had to leave school to go to university, and then became a paid university researcher at the age of 12.

Jacob, now 14, is a child prodigy researching in the areas of quantum friction, chaotic laser physics, and integrable systems, and in line to win a Nobel Prize.

And as a nursery manager and charity worker by profession, Kristine has experienced her unconventional approach to parenting and teaching helping all children, those with special needs, and also those without.

Most children won't become geniuses, of course, but by following their 'sparks', Kristine is convinced, any child will reach his or her full potential.

Now 39, Kristine says: "When I took the strategies that I used with Jacob and applied them for the typical children in my daycare, there were startling results.

"The children became performers in ballet, toured Europe on architecture internships, built computers in home garages before the age of 12, and did humanitarian aid work.

"In every child, every single time, the results of doing this were dazzling.


I truly believe that there is a 'spark' in all children and that true happiness comes from following and immersing yourself in things that you enjoy in childhood.


So how do encourage the spark in your child? Kristine explains that it involves finding the things your child is drawn to and creating rich, imaginative worlds of inspiration around that particular subject area, whether it's homemaking, nature, or art.

Her results from her years in childcare come from going above and beyond normal encouragement. She explains: "I do not mean simply getting someone a gift of a book of poetry or even a music CD, I mean aspiring writers recording their stories and having them bound into books. For someone who loves animals I would go so far as to bring live animals to the house and volunteering at an animal shelter with them.

"For the child who loves to take things apart, I would rescue old appliances from a thrift shop and buy them every size of screwdriver I could find.

"The experiences need to be hands on, high-level interactive, and shared. The 'spark' in children, once you find it, becomes the key to self-motivated learning. From that point, it is all about following them!"

Kristine, who is clearly an incredible teacher, has changed many written-off children's lives with her revolutionary education ideas and boundless, selfless, infectious enthusiasm.

She says she wants to encourage parents, who know their children better than any professional.

"Sometimes it is easy to feel like "Well, I am just the one who makes the macaroni and cheese or picks up the dirty socks here." But we, as moms, will all face a day where we face struggles in parenting.

"It may not be something as difficult as autism. It could be the politics of a sports league, competitive school admissions, or bullies.

"But I hope that my story gives mums the courage to listen to their own mother 'gut' when that day comes."

The Spark by Kristine Barnett is published by Penguin, £18.99

More on Parentdish:

The amazing painting talent of autistic Iris, 3

Our special needs advice series