Friday, 20 March 2015

The Spark by Kristine Barnett

I really expected to hate this book. Or at least, to be fairly unmoved by it. The first few chapters did nothing to disabuse me of that notion, as they felt like too rounded a tale. All the edges seemed to have been filed off, making a story that was palatable for what people wanted to hear about autism, or about life with a child with a disability, or just, quite frankly, feel-good, glad-it's-not-me pablum.

It is to the book's credit that I ended up liking it more than I was expecting. It didn't set my world on fire, I'm not telling everyone to run out and read it, but honestly, it slowly won me over to being at least bearable, with a couple of sections that rang very true to me, even though my own interactions with people with autism have been limited to knowing the men my father worked with.

On the other hand, this is one of those books where you look in disbelief at the author, wondering where she gets the energy. I for one, do not have it. Would not have it. And like a certain amount of time for contemplation and relaxation. Maybe it would be different if I was under the immense kinds of pressure you find in this book, but having been under my own versions of those, I think I'd be more likely to head for a nervous breakdown.

So yeah, it's one of those books that makes you feel inadequate in your own life. But I've come to terms with that, and would indeed fight for a reassessment of how much pressure we put on ourselves. If there are things you have to do, absolutely. It's the optional things you can have some control over, and "doing nothing" is a good option every once in a while.

That aside, this is the story of a mom with a child with autism who came up with her own methods for getting him reintegrated into normal classrooms, where, it turns out, he's a super-genius and started college at age 11. But she isn't saying that will be the result in all or even the majority of cases, but it does make a nice hook to write a bestseller on, doesn't it?

At any rate, her ideas have some core values that I ended up agreeing with far more than I thought I would - the necessity for play, even in the middle of intensive work. And strengths-based learning, which is something I think as a society we're very bad at, but apparently very bad at in particular when it comes to kids with autism, where much of the emphasis is on what they can't do.

There are sections here where I wanted my Dad back, and I always want that, but I specifically wanted him back so we could have some more conversations about the education system, and how he thought it was designed to kill a genuine love of learning, instead of fostering it. I don't necessarily disagree. I thrived on it, because it's would be impossible to kill my love of learning with a weedwhacker, but the older I get, the more I see what he was saying. And how hard it would be, how many more great, energetic teachers it would take to do that kind of intensive, directed teaching. It sucks, and I don't see an answer, but I like to dream about it, because I'm not sure we're doing it well now.

I thought Barnett had interesting things to say about that, and the ways in which focusing on areas of strength, and making time for them, also helped in all other areas as well. The other was the importance of the tactile, of doing things consciously that are sense-based, rooting ourselves. This didn't even come mostly in the context of kids with autism, but in a story she relates about a man overwhelmed by supporting his family through his wife's cancer. It hit home in a big way. I spend so much time in my head, and it's good to have the reminder to take the time to be in my body as well.

I don't know what parents of kids with autism would make of this, and while I certainly am not touting it as the answer to all life's problems, or even a great book, I did find enough small bits of wisdom that I stopped resenting it and started enjoying it.

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