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Jake: Math prodigy proud of his autism

Jake: Math prodigy proud of his autism 13:49

Jake Barnett is one in 10 million. The Indianapolis 13-year-old has been acing college math and science courses since he was eight years old. Now Jake is a college sophomore taking honors classes in math and physics, while also doing scientific research and tutoring fellow students. No one could have predicted that Jake would even make it to college. At age two, Jake began to regress - he stopped speaking and making eye contact. The diagnosis: autism. Jake is proud of his autism. "That, I believe, is the reason why I am in college and I am so successful," he tells Morley Safer.

The following script is from "Jake" which aired on Jan. 15, 2012. Morley Safer is the correspondent. Katy Textor, producer.

Child prodigies have long been a source of great fascination. We wonder, "How can so much talent reside in such a young body, so much genius?" In a moment you'll meet Jake a 13-year-old math and science prodigy who is confident he may one day challenge some of the established theories of physics.

Jake: Hanging out with a teenage Einstein
What's it like to spend time with a teenage genius? Morley Safer and producer Katy Textor did just that.

The source of that talent and that confidence comes from our most remarkable organ, the one we understand least, the brain. What is it about Jake Barnett that had him taking college courses at age eight and getting As and by 12, doing paid scientific research, and today, at age 13, an honors college sophomore lecturing the crowd at his university science symposium.

[Jake Barnett: And do any of you want my resume at all?]

The untied shoelaces reveal either your average teenager, or the first telltale signs of the absentminded professor, or both.

Surrounded by researchers often twice his age, Jake is presenting his summer physics research project on PT symmetric lattice systems.

[Jake Barnett: This has implications in fiber optics, electromagnetic signals, anything that requires like a light going through a cable.]

Jake Barnett: Every number or math problem I ever hear, I have permanently remembered.

Morley Safer: You just never forget? They never slip out the back door of your brain?

Jake Barnett: No.

Safer: Is it fun for you to do it? Do you get a kick out of it?

Jake Barnett: Yeah.

For Jake, fun is reciting from memory the infinite series of numbers known as pi.

Jake Barnett: 3.14159265358979323846264338327950...

Jake memorized more than 200 of pi's numbers in an afternoon.

Safer: Enough, enough.

And he did it, just to test himself.

Jake Barnett: You want me to go backwards from there?

Safer: Well, sure.

Jake Barnett: ...32397985356295141.3.

Safer: Bravo.

He's not just parroting a textbook, he understands and analyzes the logic of higher mathematics. He can visualize and solve complex problems by using what he calls the fourth dimension.

Safer: Just exactly what is the fourth dimension?

Barnett: It's hard to describe in terms of the typical three, because it's tangent to all the other ones. I'd be able to describe it if I had, like, a whiteboard and, like, 30 minutes to describe it. It takes a while. It's a fourth dimension, what do you expect?

The numbers appear to him as shapes that he says just build on one another.

Jake Barnett: This is for example 3 cubed or 27. And then if I want to do 54 I just stack another one onto it.

He says his mind is constantly buzzing with new physics problems and theories. When he runs out of wall space he moves on to windows.

Safer: Remembering things so precisely, does that ever become a burden to you?

Jake Barnett: No, not at all.

Morley Safer: No sense of overload?

Jake Barnett: I remember math and numbers. I don't remember other things. For example, if someone asked me where something is in the house, I tell 'em, "I don't know."

The oldest of four kids, Jake lives with his family in the suburbs of Indianapolis.

[Jake Barnett: These are my periodic tables, it's got all my elements.]

He used the money he made from his summer research project $3,200 to turn his bedroom into a science lab.

[Jake Barnett: Copernicus was the most recently named element...]

For as long as he can remember he has been fascinated by the mysteries of space.

Jake Barnett: Saturn's my favorite planet. Not due to the rings, but due to some of its moons.

Safer: Any ambition to be an astronaut?

Jake Barnett: Not an astronaut. That's like too dangerous. I'm gonna be the guy controlling the astronauts. If anyone's an astronaut it's gonna be my brother.

All work and only occasional play does not make jake a dull boy.

Safer: What do you do for fun?

Jake Barnett: When it isn't anything academic?

Safer: No, I mean, beyond the academics.

Jake Barnett: Does looking up space articles online count?

[Jake Barnett: Pi A cubed divided by GT squared.]

Jake has a full scholarship at the joint Indiana University Purdue campus in Indianapolis where he is an honors student in math and physics. He may not be the tallest student on campus, but is surely among the brightest. He regularly gets the highest grades in his classes.

[Jake Barnett: What happens if you have c sub n where it is proportional to n?]

Jake has been auditing classes here since the ripe old age of eight when it became obvious to his parents that third grade was not going to be enough for him.

Safer: What did your fellow students make of you?

Jake Barnett: Everyone was thinking that Mom was taking the class and she couldn't find a babysitter.

Kristine Barnett: The students thought I was the student.

His parents Kristine and Michael Barnett expected their son would quietly listen and learn, but even they were shocked when Jake jumped right into scientific discussions.

Kristine Barnett: The professor would ask questions and Jake was answering them. And then he took the final at the end and got an A on it and suddenly the people at the university took notice of that and eventually invited him to attend the university.

Safer: That's pretty shocking, when an eight-year-old aces a university astronomy course. Weren't you impressed?

Jake Barnett: I guess I was impressed. I was just doing what I like to do.

No one could have predicted that Jake would even make it to college. Just before his second birthday he began to regress, stopped speaking and making eye contact. After consulting with several doctors the diagnosis was autism.

Michael Barnett: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy. Therapists came to the home.

Kristine Barnett: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own. And I really was just baffled at how we were going to get him back out of that world.

Safer: And how did you get him, back out of that world?

Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.

Which even as a three-year-old was math and science. His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved the more he began to communicate.

Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax. You could just see him feel like, "Thank goodness we're not working on something that I can't do today.

Safer: And how long did it take for him to, as you say, come back?

Michael Barnett: By the time he was kindergarten age; five, six. He was still behind as far as speaking with others and socializing with others, but he was also light years ahead of everybody else. He was coming home asking us, "When am I gonna learn something at school today? I want to learn algebra."

It was trying to keep Jake challenged that led to a kind of double life. Elementary school by day and sitting in on college courses in the evening. By fifth grade, he dropped out of public school and just to demonstrate that he was ready for college, he taught himself all of high school math in just two weeks. He was 10 years old.

Kristine Barnett: That was the most determined thing I've ever seen anybody do. He had to sit in a calculus class to prove to the university that he could sit still. And Jacob was like, "I'm gonna participate in that class discussion. So if I need to learn algebra one, algebra two, geometry, trig, that's what I'm gonna do." And he took a stack of books, and he sat down, and he just--

Michael Barnett: Went and taught himself. All of it in two weeks.

Not only that, he finished the entire state of Indiana curriculum for grades 6-12 in a little over a year.

The Barnetts, who have started a center for autistic kids called Jacob's Place, say that many of Jake's symptoms of autism have disappeared.

Michael Barnett: There are certain traits that are still there. And if you really, really knew what you were lookin' for, you could dig 'em out. But otherwise, you know, that-- I got--ten-year-old kid at that point in time that just happens to be doing next level work and no one knew anything different.

Safer: Your parents told us that you're very proud of your autism.

Jake Barnett: That, I believe, is the reason why I am in college and I am so successful. It is the rise as to my love for math and science and astronomy. And it's the reason why I care. Otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten this far.

Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychology professor at Ohio State has been studying child prodigies for the last 13 years. She believes there's a link between autism and prodigies.

Joanne Ruthsatz: We know that child prodigies are having autistic relatives at a very high clip and some of them have autism themselves.

She believes that what sets a prodigy with autism apart from other children with the condition is the prodigy's genes have been modified so that the genius emerges without many of the severe disabilities associated with autism.

Joanne Ruthsatz: In the general population of autism, 10 percent will have an autistic savant skill where they're exceptional at something. And they've only got that piece displaying itself.

She says for prodigies - be it in math, music or art - the key to the extraordinary talent is extraordinary memory.

Joanne Ruthsatz: They all share this incredible memory. Each and every one of them.

Safer: In Jake's case, he's 13 years old, what's remarkable is-- not just this memory, but his vocabulary is so adult.

Joanne Ruthsatz: Of course they speak like adults. They've picked up so much information along the way so early in their life, and continue to do so.

Ruthsatz says a talent like Jake's is about one in ten million.

Joanne Ruthsatz: Jake's extraordinary. He's picking up information at a rate that none of us could even imagine doing it.

She has tested Jake and says he literally aces every intelligence and memory test.

Joanne Ruthsatz: Imagine if everything you saw you could remember. Every word you heard, you could recall that. And then you could integrate that information and come up with new ideas. That's what he's doing.

A demonstration: Dr. Ruthsatz named 28 states in random order.

No surprise he was able to do it forwards and backwards in sequence with ease. And when asked again three months later...

Safer: You still remember them?

Jake Barnett: Yes, I do.

Safer: In the same order?

Jake Barnett: And I could still go backwards.

Safer: And backwards. Give me five or ten.

Jake Barnett: Kentucky, New Mexico, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Washington, Missouri, Texas, Utah, Colorado...

While some may dismiss Jake's talent as simply a gift of remarkable memory, his physics professor says the boy is much more than a human calculator.

Safer: Is it just memory or something else?

Yogesh Joglekar: It is definitely something else. The great memory does help him, of course. Because once he reads something, he remembers it. But what is more important is that he has the drive to learn more. He definitely stands out as a powerhouse of raw talent.

Professor Yogesh Jogelcar oversaw Jake's research project. Their work was published in "Physical Review A". Jake is the youngest person to be published in that prestigious physics journal.

[Jake Barnett: The whole randomness thing that's like completely against all of physics.]

He plans to continue his research building on Einstein's theory of relativity. His parents say he takes on these challenges with an easy grace.

Michael Barnett: He has his own little tight knit group of friends that he hangs out with, that he studies with. He leads study groups. I have college-aged girls calling the house, wanting to know if Jake is available to study during finals, when I go to campus with him, it's like I'm walking around with Elvis.

So far the king seems to keep his celebrity status in check, more or less.

Jake Barnett: Practically everyone knows who I am.

Safer: Are you a star on this campus?

Jake Barnett: Big man on campus.

But the little big man says he enjoys nothing more than using his talent to help his fellow classmates see the beauty he sees in the numbers.

[Student: Thanks Jake.

Jake Barnett: You're welcome.]

Jake Barnett: I kinda wanna try to use that to end the whole math phobia thing.

Safer: Because there's so many people like me and millions of others-- are scared of math. Are scared of science. Correct?

Jake Barnett: Yeah.

Safer: Why is that so funny? You almost can't understand how anyone could be?

Jake Barnett: Exactly. Yeah.

Jake is writing a book to help us overcome our fear of math and he's on track to graduate at age 14 when he hopes to begin his Ph.D. studies.

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