Whiz kid with Asperger's syndrome aims high
INDIANAPOLIS – When Jacob Barnett first learned about the Schrodinger equation for quantum mechanics, he could hardly contain himself.
For three straight days, his little brain buzzed with mathematical functions.
From within his 12-year-old, mildly autistic mind, there gradually flowed long strings of plusses, minuses, funky letters and upside down triangles — a tapestry of complicated symbols that few can understand.
He grabbed his pencil and filled every sheet of paper before grabbing a marker and filling up a dry erase board that hangs in his bedroom. With a single-minded obsession, he kept on, eventually marking up every window in the home.
Strange, say some.
Genius, say others.
But entirely normal for Jacob, a true child prodigy.
"Whenever I try talking about math with anyone in my family," he says, "they just stare blankly."
So do many of his older classmates at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who marvel at seeing this scrawny little kid in the front row of the calculus-based physics class he has been taking this semester.
Elementary school couldn't keep Jacob interested. And college courses at IUPUI have only served to awaken a sleeping giant.
Just a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday, Jake, as he's often called, is starting to move beyond the level of what his professors can teach.
In fact, his work is so strong and his ideas so original, he's being courted by a top-notch East Coast research center. IUPUI is interested in him moving from the classroom into a funded researcher's position.
"We have told him that after this semester ... enough of the book work. You are here to do some science," said IUPUI physics professor John Ross, who vows to help find some grant funding to support Jacob and his work.
"If we can get all of those creative juices in a certain direction, we might be able to see some really amazing stuff down the road."
Teenage college student?
Developer of his own original theory on quantum physics?
Paid researcher at 13?
This is not what Jacob's parents expected from a child whose first few years were spent in silence.
Autism, Asperger's, genius?
Because he was diagnosed with a mild form of autism at the age of 2, it was natural for some to suspect that Jacob Barnett might be a savant, a condition made famous in movies like "Rainman." But experts interviewed by the Star say it's more likely that Jacob actually had traits of a child with autism or Asperger's disease.
Here are some definitions:
Autism: A condition that begins before age 3, characterized by developmental disabilities involving social interaction and communication. People with this disorder can have a range of abilities, from being severely disabled to gifted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one of every 150 child has autism.
Asperger's: A syndrome that is similar to autism, but with the distinction that those with it typically function better, have normal intelligence and near-normal language development. The CDC estimates this affects from 0.024% to 0.36% of children.
Savant: Rare condition in which persons with developmental disorders have astonishing islands of ability, brilliance or talent that stand in stark contrast to overall limitations.
The Indianapolis Star
"Oh my gosh, when he was 2, my fear was that he would never be in our world at all," said Kristine Barnett, 36, Jacob's mother.
"He would not talk to anyone. He would not even look at us."
Child psychologists assessed Jacob at the time and diagnosed behavioral characteristics of a borderline autistic child. He was impaired, they said, and had difficulty showing emotion and interacting with others.
"My biggest fear," his mom said last week, with tears welling up in her eyes, "was that he had lost the ability to say I love you to us."
By age 3, Jacob was the focus of a more intense evaluation from a team of psychologists, therapists and a diagnostic teacher.
Their report indicated that while Jacob continued to struggle with social activities and physical development, he was showing signs of academic skills that were above his age level.
Diagnosis: Asperger's syndrome, a somewhat milder condition related to autism.
After hearing this, Jacob's parents decided to pay closer attention to the things their first-born son was doing — rather than the things he was not.
For example, Jacob often recited the alphabet — forward and then backward. He used Q-tips to create vivid geometrical shapes on the living room floor. He solved 5,000 piece puzzles (rather quickly). And he once soaked in a road atlas and ended up memorizing every highway and license plate prefix.
And perhaps most amazingly, he could recite the mathematical constant Pi out to 70 digits.
"I'm at 98 now," Jacob said, interrupting his mom during an interview.
And then, a week later, he was up to 200 digits after the decimal point — forward and backward.
His head was in the stars
The Barnetts decided it was time to follow Jacob's lead, adopting a method that some parents of autistic children use — floor-time therapy — to help foster developmental growth. They let their children focus intently on subjects they like, rather than try to conform them to "normal" things.
For Jacob, that meant astronomy. As a 3-year-old, he loved looking at a book about stars, over and over again.
So off they went on a tour of the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium at Butler University.
Kristine Barnett will never forget the day.
"We were in the crowd, just sitting, listening to this guy ask the crowd if anyone knew why the moons going around Mars were potato shaped and not round," she recalls. "Jacob raised his hand and said, 'Excuse me, but what are the sizes of the moons around Mars?'."
The lecturer answered and "Jacob looked at him and said the gravity of the planet ... is so large, that (the moon's) gravity would not be able to pull it into a round shape."
"That entire building ... everyone was just looking at him, like, who is this 3-year-old?"
After that, the Barnetts began to feed Jacob's hunger for knowledge, through more books and more visits to the planetarium. By the time he was 8, he got permission to sit in on an advanced astronomy class at IUPUI.
Meanwhile, his math skills were reaching astronomical levels.
By the time he was in fifth-grade, Jake had become bored with elementary math.
He was coming home from school quiet, huddling in a safe space in the house and starting to show signs of withdrawing.
"I was really afraid we were going to lose him back into the world he was in when he was 2," said his mom.
That did not happen to Jacob, thanks in part to a third psychological evaluation done nearly two years ago that showed that this fifth-grader was not regressing, but was simply bored and needed to be stimulated — in a very big way.
As in dropping out of school.
"Indeed, it would not be in Jacob's best interest to force him to complete academic work that he has already mastered," said clinical neurophysiologist Carl S. Hale of Merrillville, Ind., in a report provided by the Barnetts.
"He needs work at an instructional level, which currently is a post college graduate level in mathematics, i.e., a post master's degree. In essence, his math skills are at the level found in someone who is working on a doctorate in math, physics, astronomy and astrophysics."
Off to college
Encouraged by this new assessment, the Barnetts made the tough decision to enroll Jacob in IUPUI's early college entrance program that caters to gifted and talented kids — although, typically they are advanced high schoolers, not 12-year-old whiz kids.
"You could tell right off the bat, his performance has been outstanding," said professor Ross, who at age 46 with a doctorate from Boston University, has never seen a kid as smart as Jacob.
"When he asks a question, he is always two steps ahead of the lecture," Ross said. "Everyone in the class gets quiet. Poor kid ... he sits right in the front row and they all just look at him."
Jacob is driven by mom or dad from his home in Hamilton County to IUPUI's campus, where he attends classes a few days each week. In between classes, he spends time at the Honors College lounge, where he has become a go-to guy for much older classmates needing tutoring.
"A lot of people come to him for help when they don't understand a physics problem," said Wanda Anderson, his class partner. "A lot of people think a genus is hard to talk to, but Jake explains things that would still be over their head."
Despite this new experience, his parents insist that Jacob remain close with his friends in Westfield.
He likes playing video games ("Guitar Hero" and "Halo Reach" are his current favorites). He plays basketball with friends, has a girlfriend and recently attended his first dance.
A normal kid.
But then, late at night, when the TV is off, the homework is done and everyone in the house is sleeping — the numbers start to percolate again.
They percolate so much that he has trouble sleeping at night.
"A lot keeps me awake," he said. "I scare people."
The numbers that keep him from snoozing are the same that led him to develop his own theory of physics — an original work that proposed a "new expanded theory of relativity" and takes what Einstein developed even further.
His mom decided to send a video of Jacob explaining his theory to the Institute for Advanced Study near Princeton University— one of the world's leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry.
That's where astrophysics professor Scott Tremaine does his work. Tremaine is an expert in the evolution of planetary systems, comets, black holes, galaxies.
In a letter back to the Barnetts, Tremaine confirmed the brilliance.
"I'm impressed by his interest in physics and the amount that he has learned so far," Tremaine wrote in an e-mail, provided by the family. "The theory that he's working on involves several of the toughest problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics.
"Anyone who solves these will be in line for a Nobel Prize."
Contacted by the Star, Tremaine confirmed the exchange of notes.
"I have seen a YouTube video in which Jake describes his theory and I have spoken with his mother and corresponded with both her and Jake by e-mail," said Tremaine. "I hope that Jake continues his interest in physics and mathematics in the future."