“Autistic Genius” Jacob Barnett’s Story is Touching, But How Much Money Will be Made Off Of His Intelligence?

The mother of  a Waterloo “autistic genius” teenager will speak to a Toronto audience on December 2 on the heels of her recently published memoir, “The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius”.

Two months ago, 15-year-old Jacob Barnett was accepted at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, one of the most eminent scientific institutions in the world. At his young age, Jacob’s IQ is higher than Einstein’s was. His family, including Kristine Barnett, his mother, all currently live in Waterloo.

While I have’t read the book (although now I really want to), I can’t help but shake this question in my mind, of just how much a parent should take advantage of the extraordinary abilities of a child through publicity. Granted, it happens all the time, particularly with parents of budding or young professional athletes.

But the more articles I read about the pair, the more I learned of all the inspirational talks Jacob’s mother gives, about the bestselling book released in April and the potential hollywood film that could follow it. I cared less and less about hearing what Kristine Barnett had to say and more about what Jacob is saying, the actual young man who possesses the brilliance. And I kept wondering, just how much money will be made off of this young man’s brilliance?

At what point does a young teenager get to decide for himself how his own abilities should be promoted and sold?

While Jacob acts and talks like a 20-something, the fact remains that he’s a 15-year-old kid, and certainly when I was 15 year old my mother still made the majority of decisions around my life. Like any child, Jacob’s legal guardian still has the right to make the best decisions about his future.

Central to Kristine Barnett’s promotion of Jacob’s intelligence focuses around her journey as a mother to reject what modern special ed teachers and autistic therapists suggested to her, including one who told her while Jacob was still very young that he would never read. The memoir focuses around how she first educated Jacob through homeschool, administering a different kind of education that encouraged the young child to flourish and learn what he wanted.

“Jake got alphabet cards galore, as well as maps (another passion) and puzzles,” reads a review by the Washington Post. “Barnett managed not only to mainstream Jake into kindergarten, she also did the same for many other autistic kids in the learning center, Little Light, that she ran out of her garage.”

The book’s reviews imply that much of Jacob’s success is due to her rejection of modern education theory (and if it doesn’t imply that, its quite close to it). This assertion prods at the eternal nature/nurture debate. Would Jacob’s brilliance flourish regardless of the actions his mother took in his educational development, or is she to be credited? Let me remind you, the book is literally titled: “A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius.” It seems clear who’s taking credit.

Despite what can be seen as claims to Jacob’s eventual brilliance and profiting off of those claims, the entire family’s story is touching and motivational.

When Jacob Barnett was 2 years old, he was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. Doctors told his parents that the boy would likely never talk or read and would probably be forever unable to independently manage basic daily activities. What followed was a difficult journey for the family: Kristine’s second child was born with a disease called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a neurological disorder that can affect every system in the body. When she was 30 she suffered a stroke and after that she was diagnosed with lupus.

“With the onset of the Great Recession, Michael Barnett loses his job at Circuit City, the family is overextended financially, and the Barnetts spend part of the frigid Indiana winter in a house without heat,” noted the Post.

But the tough mother Kristine Barnett and her family persevered, and today all seems well. Jacob has been tipped to win the Nobel prize, a 2011 TIME report has asserted that he may one day disprove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, at 12 he became a paid researcher in quantum physics and along with his current spot in Waterloo’s genius school, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, he’s also given a TEDxTeen talk.

As well, the media appearances seem to pile on for Kristine Barnett. At the end of a recent article on the pair in the Globe and Mail, Kristine says to Jacob, “What do you think about when I go, ‘Oh, I’m worried about you taking [on too much]?”, to which Jacob responds, ““I’m worried about you having more media appearances.” It was almost too good to be true as I read it.

But no matter how much his mother profits, no matter how many media appearances or book sales, Jacob will likely very easily earn tons of money in his life. He’s touted to become one of the most brilliant people on earth.

Still, this was just one guy’s thoughts. And you can bet I’ll be reading “The Spark” tonight.

Here’s a long-form piece about Jacob in Maclean’s magazine by Paul Wells.

Here’s a video of Jacob in March, explaining a “simple quantum mechanics problem”.

Photo by Canada AM.

13 replies on ““Autistic Genius” Jacob Barnett’s Story is Touching, But How Much Money Will be Made Off Of His Intelligence?”
  1. Avatarsays: Guest

    Couldn’t agree more. A child is in the hands of their parent(s) until they’re of age to legally do so themselves. His mother could easily have said “I can’t handle this” and chose to make him go to school despite knowing it all, and do his extended research on his own through library books, the internet, and whatnot. Instead, she even went as far as to relocate her whole family to another country to allow him to flourish just because that’s where the best school for him was. Who cares if she makes some money telling his childhood story? I’m sure the expenses to raise him were fairly high anyway, so it’s good she got something for making the right choices for his future.

  2. Avatarsays: Jacqueline

    I really think you should read the book. Because if you read it, you would know how much the money aren’t the interest of the family of Jacob. They tried to give to him everything not for make him a genius, but for try to help him with is autism. This include play, have friend and enjoy his interest. Not for have money later, than can be now or in his future, but for make him happy.
    Yes, there are a lot’s of people with prodigy children, that want just have his part of fame not caring what this include. But isn’t this case.
    Sorry for my bad english, but I’m writing from a different country.

  3. Avatarsays: Home educating family

    If only more parents gage their children the same opportunities, the respect and freedom to develop at their own pace, the world would be a far better place.

  4. Avatarsays: CyberScholar

    I’m sensing the author doesn’t like money, doesn’t know anything about money, has never earned any money, and spends a lot of time and energy deprecating others who are more successful. If he can bring them down….then maybe it can somehow elevate him???

  5. Avatarsays: bgbhj

    I was very interested in physics and math when I was 8 or something but I tried to find anything related to math or physics to read but I failed because I was born in a third world arab country , There was no such a thing. I learned that even students studying physics or math at a university don’t even know anything at all. The situation here is completely messed up. I ended up hating religious backward medieval mentality of most arabs which ,I think, is the root of all backwardness in the arab world .

  6. Avatarsays: Dan Carr

    What’s wrong with making money? How many bright kids fall through the cracks of a rigid educational system? We may never know. This mother did an amazing job confronting and refusing a system’s label placed upon her child by ‘experts’. She and her son deserve all the good things in life… Including money.

  7. Avatarsays: Jessica Pigg Wright

    Each child learns and thinks differently and this mother had the sense to let her child do what came naturally instead of forcing his mind into a cookie cutter mold and stifling his intellectual development. I applaud her for listening to her intuition, and it seems to me her decision has been proven to be the correct one. How many other high school dropouts let alone grade school dropouts have or could accomplish what Jacob has?

  8. Avatarsays: Tracey Davis

    I’m thinking you have no business blogging about this topic without reading the book. How judgmental of you to assume her motivation was for profit.

  9. Avatarsays: Elizabeth Lang

    What is the point of this judgemental article by a writer who has admittedly not even read the book, and seems to know very little in depth about the subjects that he’s talking about. All it seems like he’s doing is presenting a prejudiced and very cynical point of view based on…what exactly is it he’s basing it on? Because he doesn’t even present the facts on what this biased attitude is based on. Other families with brilliant kids? Because there is no mention that the author has even done research on that. What a waste of my time reading this.

    So this is simply an article about the prejudiced views of the writer of the article trying to throw negativism on people who have done something remarkable and turn us against the mother for doing so?

  10. Avatarsays: annefi

    I hope you changed your mind after reading the book. Greed on your part seems to be the problem here, being worried about what his mom should get out of it. Please read on: As to Jacob’s response to his mom’s question, “I am worried about you having more media appearances,” I believe you got it wrong. I work with people with Autism, so I can see the answer to the question from the other side. I don’t think Jacob was saying that HE was worried about his mom were having more media appearances, but rather, he was stating what his mom was thinking that SHE was the one worried about her son having more media appearances. Do you know what limitations Jacob has in everyday life? Yes, he is brilliant when it comes to math and physics, but what about daily living? I am sure he is not able to tie his own shoes, that’s why he wears sandals he can slip on. There are many limitations on his part, that’s why he needs his family to help him out. Your question about him maybe having been able to do all he does without his mom’s intervention, and following the programs he was on, I would say that that would not have been possible. Having no knowledge of Autism, you seem to think you have the right to make judgments through cynical questions. I am appalled, but hope these comments will be of help to you to start digging a little deeper before you write any other articles.

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