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The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius and Autism


This book, by Kristine Barnett, is a truly remarkable account of her determination to do whatever it took for her autistic son to be at his best.

Jake had displayed extraordinary abilities - including reciting the alphabet forwards and backwards and learning the Japanese translation of a CD – before he was a year old, and then gradually slipped away into a world where it didn’t seem he could be reached. No speech, no eye contact, no hugs, no real communication. Instead Jake was obsessed by shadow and light and would spend hours playing with string or alphabet cards or cones.

When the special school he attended discouraged his alphabet cards because they assumed he would never speak or read, Kristine was outraged that they had given up on him at the age of three – and she took it upon herself to figure out the key to unlocking Jake’s character – and his genius.

She found some more autistic kids (and their parents) and set up a charity, Little Light, designed to find out what would need to happen to engage them sufficiently to be able to teach them the skills they’d need to get into mainstream education.She believed there was a ‘way in’ to every child, whether it was through their love of textures, their sense of humour or their obsession with building blocks.

As I became enthralled in this story, I couldn’t help but notice a few similarities between Kristine’s ideas and the philosophy behind clean approaches to change.

During his therapy sessions, as his therapists tried to get him to perform their standard tasks, Jake was bored. But when Kristine encouraged his love of stars, and took him to an observatory to view Mars through a telescope, he began to communicate again for the first time – with a professor in a seminar designed for adults.(He was still only three.) Kristine encouraged the things that captured Jake’s interest, the things he was good at, his strengths – rather than trying to remedy those things he struggled with.

Clean Language, Clean Space and Emergent Knowledge are all fantastic ways to ensure that we keep our attention on the things that are of interest to our clients.By restricting ourselves to use only their words along with clean questions, we dramatically reduce the likelihood that our clients will be bored and uncooperative.And if someone wants suggestions or advice, then by staying clean for (much)longer than we might normally, we increase the chances that any ideas we do offer will be welcomed.

These three innovations of David Grove have in common that they are neutral, and it was part of David’s philosophy to honour all aspects of a person’s system equally. However, he also invented the question, “What would you like to have happen?” to direct a person’s attention to their desired outcome(s) and to let him know which aspects of their experience it may be most useful for them to pay attention to.

In their development of David’s work, Symbolic Modelling, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley recognised that many facilitators were unable to discriminate between problems (things people don’t like), remedies to problems (things people want to reduce or eliminate) and desired outcomes (things people want or want more of). So they developed the PRO (problem, remedy, outcome) model, which includes definitions of these three categories along with relevant clean questions to ask in each case – all designed to put a person’s attention on what they want.Just like Kristine did with Jake and the other children at Little Lite.

When one boy showed a keen interest in building blocks, she fetched him 15 packs; when a girl lived in a ‘fantasy world’, she listened to her stories, recorded them and helped her to turn them into books. She was meeting these children – and delighting them – in their world and making it much more likely that they would want to engage in hers.

The lengths Kristine went to in order to meet and delight her charges reminded me of David Grove and the way he took things to extremes – continually experimenting with what would work, and then what would work better, honing his questions and techniques to make them simpler and easier to use. He called this ‘paying due diligence’ to his craft. And, not surprisingly, the resultant processes all have this feature – of taking things beyond what might be considered ‘normal’ –embedded within them. It is surprising what you can learn by simply asking yourself, or being asked, the question, “And what else do you know?” several times in a row.

Jake did get into mainstream kindergarten. He has learned how to socialise. And Kristine also made sure, along the way, that he has had a real childhood. This has been crucial, because once Jake became able to explain what was going on in his mind, it also became apparent that he is a child prodigy – an expert mathematician, a world-class astronomer and a gifted teacher – able to solve problems in his head that others grapple with for years.

As Kristine says, “Though his gifts are unique his story highlights the possibility we all have of realising what is extraordinary in ourselves, and maybe even opens the door to the possibility that “genius” might not be all that rare.”

I believe that one ‘way in’ to our gifts and possibilities is through CleanLanguage, whether that’s by gaining insights into our own resources, modelling someone else’s strategy and learning from that – or using it in a group setting to improve the skills of everyone there.

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About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

Blog categories
Adventures in Clean
Book Reviews
Clean Ambassadors
Clean Interviewing
Clean Language
Clean Space
Clean with Groups
Life Purpose
Pattern Spotting
Practice Group
Symbolic Modelling
Systemic Modelling
Structures for Living