For a boy who was once nonverbal, whom doctors didn’t think would do much of anything, 15-year-old Jacob Barnett of Indiana is doing alright. Alright as in, working on his Ph.D. in Astrophysics.
Jacob’s mom, Kristine Barnett, told ABC News that her son was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at age two when he lost the use of language. Doctors and teachers told Kristine that her son would never speak again. Through Indiana’s early intervention program, Jacob received a range of therapies, including speech and occupational therapy.
At a certain point, Kristine began to feel like her so wasn’t getting enough of a regular childhood, so she took him outside one night to listen to Louis Armstrong and look at the stars.
“Little did I know it would be those stars that would bring him back into our world,” she told ABC News. “They were what we had. It was what we had to hold onto. It was the beginning with a relationship with my child.”
That night sparked an interest in astronomy, and a way to connect with her son. Kristine began taking Jacob to a planetarium, where he absorbed information in a way that made it clear that while Jacob’s brain might be working differently than other childrens’, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jacob regained speech at age 3, and began reading at age 3-1/2.
On their second trip to the planetarium, a college-level lecture was taking place. They went in, and Jacob began reading the slides. The lecturer asked a question about the density of Mars’ moons, and Jacob answered it. Correctly. They attended more lectures.
Jacob, now 15, is pursuing a Ph.D. in astrophysics.
I’m not sharing his story because we need another “yay, look, a successful autistic person” story. Nor am I interested in giving false hope to parents of children who will never pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics. I’m sharing it because Jacob’s story does reinforce some really important points for those of us in the autism community — including all those who work with, teach, or love someone with autism.
Nonverbal does not equal non-hearing and non-comprehending. Young autistic individuals like Carly Fleischmann, RJ Peete, and others have made it very clear that even when they couldn’t communicate verbally, they were listening.
“When I couldn’t talk, I could still hear what people were saying about me. Always remember that,” said RJ Peete at age 13, while accepting a Genius of Autism Award.
Even when Jacob wasn’t speaking, he was not only listening, he was learning.
Behavior is communication. There are lots of ways to communicate, and speaking is just one of them. Jacob was obviously able to communicate his interest in the stars even though he couldn’t say it. This is a particularly important point when we look at issues like meltdowns or elopement (bolting from the scene): those behaviors are communicating something: feeling overwhelmed, afraid, frustrated, something. The real question becomes: how well are we, the non-autistic (“neurotypical”), doing at listening?
Unique perspectives are incredibly valuable. In a 2012 TEDx Teen speech that Jacob gave entitled “Forget What You Know,” he said: “In order to succeed, you have to look at everything with your own unique perspective…When you think, you must think in your own creative way, and not accepting everything that’s already out there.”
In many ways, it’s easier for schools and communities to foster an environment of thinking the same. My 12-year-old daughter, who has Asperger Syndrome, has commented to me that “ people tell you to just be yourself, but they really want you to be like everyone else.” Teachers are stuck teaching to the test, and these standardized tests reward standardized thinking. But history has taught us, time and time again, that we benefit greatly from non-standardized thinking.
Proving this point is Jacob, explaining how he views math, and giving a lesson in quantum mechanics:
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