I just watched this 60 Minutes story on Jacob Barnett, the 13 year-old student at Purdue University who’s been attracting attention for his exceptional abilities in math and science, particularly physics. It’s just generally inspiring and delightful to watch Jake in action, but the part of this story that got my attention begins about six minutes in:
Morley Safer: Just before his second birthday, Jake began to regress; stopped speaking and making eye contact. After consulting with several doctors, the diagnosis was autism.
Michael Barnett, Jacob’s dad: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy; therapists came to the home…
Kristine Barnett, Jacob’s mom: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own and I really was just baffled as to how we were going to get him back out of that world.
Morley Safer: And how did you get him back, out of that world?
Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.
Morley Safer: Which even as a three year-old was math and science. His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved, the more he began to communicate.
Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax. You could just see him feel like ‘Thank goodness we’re not working on something that I can’t do today.”
I’m inspired by the way Jacob’s mom talks about what happened when he was two. She says that her son was “going further and further into a world of his own,” and that they wanted to get him back. It seems like it would have been easy to worry that supporting Jake’s ventures into the depths of abstract mathematical thought would have pushed him further into the “world” they sought to bring him back from. But the Barnetts trusted that those things that brought Jake the most peace and contentment were the key to maintaining connection with him. They reorganized his life around what was already engaging and fascinating to him, and eased up on pushing him to do the things that seemed to be shutting him down.
As it turned out, having permission to give his attention to the pursuits that called to him seems to have made it possible for Jake to find (or regain) avenues for communication and other social interaction. From the sound of it, the family continued to work with him on speaking and engaging with others, but those things were no longer the center of attention. Communication skills were reassigned – instead of taking center stage, they were given the chance to support the complex intellectual work Jake craved.
The Barnetts are quick to acknowledge that Jake is one person and it doesn’t work to generalize their experience to all or even any other children with autism diagnoses. But they do encourage parents of any child who appears to be struggling to do just what they did – to look for the spark of contentment and delight in the child – and build around that spark. Not every child makes it as obvious as Jake did where that spark lies, but I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t have one.