Jacob Barnett is largely believed to be a math and science prodigy. He began taking college courses at the age of 8. At the age of 10, he was allowed to sit in on a college-level Calculus class, but in order to prepare for the course and to ensure that he could meaningfully contribute to the conversations that took place, Barnett took it upon himself to teach himself the entire math curriculum of an average middle and high school— in two weeks. That same year, Barnett was fully admitted to Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis to begin his degree of condensed matter physics. Currently, Barnett is studying to complete his PhD in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada; being the youngest student to have ever been admitted to the program.
What is truly amazing about Barnett’s story is its inauspicious beginning. When he was only 2, Barnett was diagnosed with severe autism and many doubted that he would ever do things such as talk or tie his own shoes. Further, Barnett only began speaking shortly before the time he entered the third grade. After his diagnosis, Barnett’s parents enrolled him in a special education program. Reflecting on the experience, he claimed that the program failed to teach him anything. Rather, he was more preoccupied with watching how the world around him worked and figuring out why things naturally happened the way they did. In a Tedx talk he gave titled, “Forget What You Know,” Barnett claimed that an oversight that many people make is that sometimes it is important to take a break from learning in order to just think. Barnett’s largest takeaway from the talk is that people should strive to thoroughly apply the information and knowledge that they know to the world around them.
Going against the advice of nearly everyone around her, Barnett’s mother decided early on to disenroll her son from his special education program in order to home school him. This decision ended up shaping the rest of Barnett’s future as it afforded him the opportunity to focus on the subjects in which he excelled. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Barnett’s parents claimed that nearly all of his autistic symptoms and tendencies disappeared after his mother began homeschooling him.
Barnett does not consider his autism to be a disadvantage. Rather, he is proud of it, claiming that his prognosis was the thing that spurred him towards becoming the person his is today. One symptom common among those with autism that has greatly aided Barnett thus far is the tendency to hyperfocus on a subject of interest. Hyperfocusing is a trait that allows individuals to work for countless hours on the same subject. For many, this would become tedious, boring, or even irksome, but to those with the ability to hyperfocus on tasks, the experience is fun. In Barnett’s case, he tends to become engrossed in working out the intricacies of mathematical equations. His parents mentioned that they often have trouble stocking their house with enough paper in order to keep up with Barnett’s work. They also stated that when runs out of papers to write on, he will transition to writing on walls, white boards, and window spaces.
It is not uncommon for some of the brightest minds to have similar beginnings as Barnett’s. Albert Einstein was also slow to speak, apparently not beginning until around the age of 4. Similarly, different historians claim that Charles Darwin may have had a combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder, dyslexia, and Asperger’s syndrome. This shows that people who are faced with aversive circumstances can oftentimes overcome them in order to achieve greatness. But what about Jacob Barnett? What factors allowed him to accomplish everything he has already?
In Barnett’s case, and in the case of many other children, he was naturally drawn towards a specific subject of interest. While mathematics is not the usual area of interest for most children, many children have something that they are passionate about. Whether it is art, or music, or a sport, most children are intrinsically drawn towards one area or another. What truly spurred Jacob forward and propelled him out of the special education class that was not benefitting him was the support of his family. His parents successfully identified that their child was different and that his specific needs were not that of a typical child’s. What if Jacob’s parents had not identified his unique ability and followed their intuition on removing him from the special education class? Well, he would most likely be suffering far more from autism than he is presently and chances are that it would be a detriment, rather than one of the defining factors of his success. To quote Albert Einstein, “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will go its whole life believing that it is stupid.”