Autistic Teen Working on Astrophysics Ph.D.

Budding astrophysicist's mom found a niche for her son at young age.

May 29, 2013, 6:46 PM

May 30, 2013 — -- An Indiana mother said that her determination to find a niche for her autistic son, who doctors had little hope for, led him to flourish into a budding astrophysicist with an off-the-charts IQ, and he is now pursuing a PhD. in physics.

Kristine Barnett's son, Jacob, 15, was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism when he was 2. Because he had lost language, he was on the more severe end of the spectrum. Psychologists and teachers believed that the young boy may not ever speak again. As Barnett put it, they thought that he was lost.

"He was very precise," she told "He wasn't barreling through the world like other little boys. He lined cars up precisely. His mannerisms were precise.

"He seemed to like schedule and routine, even from infancy," she said.

After his diagnosis, Jacob was visited frequently by a number of psychologists under an Indiana program called First Steps, which included a developmental therapist, an occupational therapist, and a speech therapist, among others.

But early signs in Jacob's childhood hinted at an inner world that was harboring massive intelligence. At a very young age, he would carry a set of beloved alphabet cards with him wherever he'd go.

At one point, he took a bundle of crayons and arranged them across the living room floor in the color spectrum, which he had distinguished from light coming through the living room window and hitting glasses perched on a table.

As Barnett would run a daycare out of her home, she would play with other people's kids outside while Jacob was slumped over the table inside, where he would work with therapists. He was spending hours trying to put a ball in a cup.

One spring day, as the kids ran through a sprinkler, she decided to make a change.

"We were forgetting his childhood. His spirit was being crushed by the opinion that everything was wrong," she said. "I resolved to give it back to him."

That night, Barnett took Jacob out after dark, turned on fog lights of her car, put on some Louis Armstrong, laid on hood of the car with him and looked at the stars.

"Little did I know it would be those stars that would bring him back into our world," she said. "They were what we had. It was what we had to hold onto. It was the beginning with a relationship with my child."

In an attempt to connect with her son and nurture the spark of interest he showed when they would go look at the stars, she decided to take him to a planetarium.

"I didn't get it. They seemed like far-away dots to me," she said. "He then showed me a nebula on the computer, and it gave me a peek into his mind -- into the way he sees the world."

Barnett decided to stop having Jacob meet with therapists. She said that she was advised by everyone she knew, including her friends and her husband, not to remove Jacob from the system.

By the age of 3, Jacob began to talk again, and everyone was asking Barnett for the secret to the sudden recovery. Typically, it takes years for an autistic child to recover speech.

By the age of 3-and-a-half, Jacob had taught himself to read. This is what he'd been doing while taking books off to the corner, Barnett said she realized.

She decided then to take a second trip to a planetarium. When they arrived, a college-level lecture was taking place. Hesitant, she took her boy in. Jacob immediately began reading the slides, and when the professor asked a question about the density of Mars' moons, Jacob answered the question -- correctly.

"At that point, my view changed, and I realized that his mind is remarkable," Barnett said. "He understood complex concepts. My outlook for his future was completely changed."

Today, Jacob is now working towards a PhD. at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Several IQ tests have been administered on him, and Barnett said that it's been concluded that he can't be measured, so he is always given the top number.

Speaking with, he said that when he entered grade school, he was already hoping to be beginning algebra.

"In kindergarten, I knew that it was for kids to play and develop social skills," he said. "By first grade, I thought we'd do some mathematics -- algebra. Then, in second grade, still no algebra. They told me not until high school. So, I guess this came out of my desire to learn more mathematics."

Jacob, at one point, came home from school and sat inside a square bookcase. His mother, fearing that he was beginning to regress, called a psychologist.

"She said he's deeply bored. She said if you don't find what you did, you're going to lose him," Barnett said.

She started taking Jacob to more planetarium visits. At a point, after attending lectures, he was told he could join classes. One was on Saturn. Another was on electromagnetism. Jacob aced them all, and began moving towards his advanced degree at an accelerated pace.

Barnett credits his success to putting her son in as many rich situations as she could find.

"If you find the passion in a child and tap into it, that will become what their drive," she said. "And if somebody had drive, they can accomplish anything."

Barnett's memoir, "The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius," was released in April.

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