Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Review of 'The Spark'

Lately I've been reading 'The Spark', by Kristine Barnett, about her autistic son Jake and his genius. Some of you may have heard of them (the link to news stories about her and Jake have been doing the Facebook rounds), and even read the book. It tells of how, when her son was three and his special ed teacher told to stop sending her son to school with alphabet cards, because he'd 'never need the alphabet', she refused to accept that he had such a limited future, and set out to prove it. In time, young Jake proved to be something of a mathematical/scientific genius, with an IQ so high it's almost unmeasurable. It's a stirring story, and one that I loved reading... and yet. And yet. Sigh. I have mixed feelings about this book. She did so many things right, and one Big Thing wrong.

The things she did right were -

- Closely observing her son with a realistic eye – and thus coming to recognize that the traditional 'therapies' for autistic children were not helping her son at all.

- Realizing also that during his 'free time', his whole manner was different – purposeful, deeply engaged with the world around him, and in fact “like someone who was lost in very important, serious work.” (pg 41)

- Refusing to accept that her child (or any other child for that matter) should be 'written off' as 'beyond hope' at the tender age of three.

- Believing in her son's intelligence, and that he was capable of far more than the 'autism experts' and his special ed teachers were telling her he could do.

- Trusting her own intuition that she needed to take her son out of the special ed pre-school he was attending, despite the opposition of just about everyone around her, including her own husband.

- Asking herself, “Why is it all about what these kids can't do? Why isn't anyone looking more closely at what they can do?” ( pg 56)- Engaging the child where he was at, by harnessing her child's 'special interests' to help him learn, encouraging rather than suppressing them – even if they seemed incomprehensible, frightening or 'weird' to her and others.

- Understanding intrinsically that other skills will emerge or improve if a child is encouraged to do what they love, and that you can connect best with them through this.

- Insisting that Jake be allowed to have 'time out' and a 'regular' childhood – i.e., to not spend his every waking moment being 'therapised'; a right all too many autistic children are still denied.

- Recognising that “people with autism are in our world. They're just not thinking about the things we want them to think about.” (pg 77, my emphasis added)

- Taking the methods that worked so well to encourage and support her son, and extending them to help other autistic children as well, including some profoundly autistic children that were thought 'unreachable' and 'unteachable'.

And the one Big Thing she does wrong?

She demonises autism.

Yes, even though she is a lot more accepting of autistic 'quirks' than many autism parents, she still says flat out “Autism is a thief. It takes your child away.” (top of page 30, if you're interested). She refers several times to feeling she was 'losing' her son to autism (actually, he seems to me to have been mostly retreating inside his head out of boredom, or perhaps sensory or social overload), she refers to his autism in terms of 'impediments', etc, etc. In other words, she still has a lot of the 'Big Bad Autism' mindset. This even though it's obvious to anyone who knows autistic people that a large part of what makes young Jake special is his autistic traits. Autism isn't responsible for his phenomenally high IQ, but it is almost certainly responsible, for instance, for his ability to focus intently on his particular interests, going deeper and deeper into them, for long periods of time, not to mention his ability to perceive patterns far better than most people can. In other words, he's not a genius because he's autistic, but he uses his genius in an autistic fashion.

To give Ms Barnett her due, she also states that she eventually came to understand (pg 95) that “curing autism would be the same as 'curing' science and art”, and that her “beloved boy hadn't been missing after all. He'd just been working”, and “how fortunate it was that [they] hadn't taken away everything he'd been using for self-stimulation in those early days.” (pgs 93-94). Nonetheless, she still refers several times to people 'losing' their children to autism, and autism itself as a 'locked-in' state. There are mixed messages all the way through this book.

It's a shame that she comes so far, understands so much, does so much that is absolutely fantastic, is so revolutionary in her approach... and yet fails to take that one little step further, that would take her over the 'hump' of attitude change, and into seeing that much of what makes her son so special is his autistic traits, that autism is not a 'tragedy' or a 'thief' or a 'monster', or in any way 'bad', it simply is. Another way of relating to the world. Another way of being. Another way of being human.

This is still however an important book, and I can sum up its essential message in no better words than Ms Barnett's herself, in the postscript, where she says... “This is how far we've come, from the special ed teachers who didn't believe Jacob could ever learn to read, to [his] university physics professor who sees his unlimited potential. That's the kind of ceiling I want my son's teachers to be setting for him. More important, it's the ceiling I want teachers and parents to set for every child, and for all of us to set for ourselves... I'm not suggesting every autistic child is a prodigy, or every typical child for that matter. But if you fuel a child's innate spark, it will always point the way to far greater heights than you could ever have imagined.”


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