Kristine Barnett won't soon forget the "most devastating day in the life" of her son.
Jacob, called "Jake," her then 3-year-old, had recently stopped talking and had been diagnosed with autism. One day, she dropped him off at a gymnastics class, and, when she returned to pick him up, Barnett, 36, says she found all the other students sitting in a circle, while Jake was curled up and cowering in a corner.
"It was the day I knew Jake would never do sports or be like other kids later in life," the day care provider and mother of four tells ParentDish. "My heart broke, thinking he would be trapped inside this forever and never be able to talk to us."
But today, 12-year-old Jake is studying electromagnetic physics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and has an IQ of 170, higher than that of Albert Einstein. And he's astounding university professors by developing his own theory of relativity -- they're lining him up for a Ph.D research role, Barnett, of Noblesville, Ind., says.
When Jake was 8, he jumped from fifth grade to college after teaching himself all the high school math classes -- calculus, algebra, geometry and trigonometry -- in one week and testing at college-level mathematics, Barnett recalls.
Recently, the boy has embarked on his own expanded version of Einstein's theory of relativity. Barnett sent a video of his theory to the renowned Institute for Advanced Study near Princeton University.
She tells ParentDish she fears that because Jake "learns differently than traditional students," he will become bored with university-level courses and says she hopes "someone will take him on as an apprentice."
Barnett, married to Michael Barnett, a store manager for T-Mobile, says she drives her pre-teen son 50 minutes each way to the university. He calls her from his cell when it's time to pick him up at the end of the school day."We knew he was gifted, but we never realized to what a degree," she tells ParentDish.
Jake's classmates also marvel at the scrawny little kid in the front row of the calculus-based physics class he's taking this semester, the Indianapolis Star reports.
"When I first walked in and saw him, I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to school with Doogie Howser,' " Wanda Anderson, a biochemistry major at IUPU, tells the newspaper.
Barnett says the journey has not been an easy one.
By the time Jake was 1 1/2, he was reciting the alphabet backwards and forwards and calculating the volume of his cereal box in his head, she tells ParentDish.
But soon after, at 18 months, she says he completely stopped talking and withdrew emotionally. A battery of physicians diagnosed him with autism, and later Asperger's syndrome.
Barnett says it was then that the family settled on a mission: "to help our son and to help other kids like him." The Barnetts held a small fundraiser in a friend's garage and founded MyJacobsPlace.com.
The Barnetts and MyJacobsPlace supporters have turned a dilapidated building into a recreation center, where children with autism and their families gather for movie nights, parent support groups, social gatherings and other events. The foundation has helped hundreds of families across Indiana and Ohio through its awareness and sports programs.
"We were so afraid Jake would be withdrawn from us forever, and so we set out to find out what was the spark that could light him up," Barnett recalls.
For Jake, that spark turned out to be astronomy. As a 3-year-old, Barnett says, he loved looking at books about stars, and so the family spent a lot of time at a nearby observatory and planetarium.
"He could teach himself to read, but couldn't answer a simple question like 'What did you do today?" she says. "But he loved the planetarium and astronomy, so I knew I had to figure out how to build on that. I called the university and practically begged a professor to let Jake audit a class and sit in the back. I was so afraid that he would lose himself in the autism. I was desperate."
That determination paid off.
So far, Jake is the only member of his immediate family to have these rare abilities, Barnett says.
"But my family and my husband's extended family all are quirky," she tells ParentDish. "My grandpa was an inventor and my sister was a child artistic prodigy, and everyone is entrepreneurial on my side of the family. We've never had normal desk jobs."
Looking ahead, Barnett says she doesn't know what the future holds for Jake, but she has learned some valuable lessons for other parents when it comes to focusing on "what your child can do, instead of what people tell you he can't."
"I'm thankful that Jake has become the person he is and feel that, for all children with autism, we need to find the place where there is a little spark inside them," Barnett says. "If we had listened to all the people that told us our son would always be in special ed, and would probably never escape the isolation of autism, how sad would that be?"