Thursday, July 04, 2013

"The Spark": A mother nurtures her supposedly autistic son's intellectual gifts

Author: Kristine Barnett
Title: “The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius
Publication: 2013, Random House, ISBN 978-0-8129-9337-0, 250 pages, hardcover
Amazon link
Kristine Barnett and her husband gave birth in 1988 to a son, Jake, who was at first diagnosed as autistic, perhaps with “only” a severe end of Asperger’s.  But before grade school his enormous potential intellectual talents awakened, and his social skills gradually improved, to the point that he was able to attend college classes in mathematics and physics at middle school age.

The most recent video I could find right now is on BBC and shows Jake at age 14 to be quite articulate and composed on television.
Jake’s brain seems to be able to use “memory” as a “cheat sheet” and he can read it the way a person would read a crib sheet. Another analogy is to say that his mind has a “flash drive”.   Kristine also writes that he sees objects in more than three dimensions (there are eleven, according to string theory).  It may not take a large genetic “mutation” to provide such ability, but it seems that when it happens, other functions (associated with “street smarts”) are compromised, partly because parts of the brain are used in unusual ways. 
What is remarkable about most of Kristine’s story, though, is the degree to which she is (and was already) involved in helping disadvantaged children, in her midwestern Indiana community.  She, and for the most part her husband Michael, were totally socialized in this area already.  Their family and neighbors were hit very hard by the post-2008 recession (after taking out a mortgage on a pre-recession-priced house), to the point of sparing on meat and having to interdepend on friends.  One family lost a business or home to a weather event and found that their insurance company was broke, too.  The narrative suggests that in “real world” America, people give up most discretionary income when they have families, and have very little personal cushion for hardship.

Kristine also had severe medical issues with her pregnancies, which some women do. These included a stroke, and lupus.  These problems probably were autoimmune in nature.  The possibility that a woman will need a lot of physical support from a spouse (and maybe others, like in the workplace) can never be predicted, so it is becomes a responsibility for others that doesn't have anything to do with "choice" or "personal responsibility" in the usual libertarian sense.  That has possible moral consequences down the road in the way of supporting some socially conservative expectations that men particularly honor their gender roles.  

All of these points hint at the “moral problem” of being “special”.  Your gifts relate to a world where people have the wealth, stability and surplus to use them.  Not everybody does.  “You” get called upon to show you can help them in a more personal way, and that is not easy for someone who is “different” can cannot “compete” socially according to usual norms.  I know this from my own personal experience.  I had some of the same pattern as Jake, but with much less in the way of extremes.  So my being different was viewed, especially during my coming of age in the 50's and 60's, through a moral lens, and it let me to look at others that way as an adult.  

The book does not number its chapters (it does name them) or provide a table of contents.  Doing so might have been helpful.
Second picture: Near Brown County St Park, south of Indianapolis (personal picture, 2012);  visited also in 1970. Third Picture: Indiana University in Bloomington, same trip.  

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