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Autistic boy genius pursues physics passion at Perimeter Institute

09/09/2013 11:55 EDT | Updated 11/09/2013 05:12 EST
A 15-year-old boy who was diagnosed with autism at an early age is turning heads as he goes back to school this fall – except instead of basic algebra, he’ll be taking masters-level courses in theoretical physics at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont.

Jacob Barnett, whose family moved with him from Indiana to Waterloo and has an IQ higher than Albert Einstein, says the 11-month Perimeter Scholars International program was the ideal choice.

"I came here because it's a very collaborative environment at Perimeter. The research is great here," Jacob Barnett told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris on Monday. "I could have gone to Stanford or Cambridge," he said.

"I really liked it [at the Perimeter Institute] because you are not going to get stuck in one field, it's a very open place, it's a very collaborative place," he said.

Jacob's mother Kristine Barnett said uprooting her family to move to Waterloo has "definitely been an adventure."

"We have followed our 15-year-old out of the country," Kristine said. "We're doing really well, because Waterloo is so supportive and nice. What a wonderful community to move to, so the adjustment is great."

More physics

"I'm not going to be done with physics ever," Jacob said, adding he would like to pursue a PhD in the field after he completes the Perimeter Scholars International program.

"I find physics very fascinating," Jacob said. "I want to become some kind of a researcher in physics. Probably a professor of some sort but I am not sure yet."

While physics is Jacob's passion and his colleagues at the Perimeter Institute are in their 20s, he has friends his own age and the topic of conversation isn't always centred around physics.

"That's a plus," Jacob said. "Usually, it's whatever comes up. I have normal relationships with people.

Diagnosed autistic

As a toddler, Jacob lost the ability to speak for a year and a half.

Doctors diagnosed Jacob as severely autistic as a two-year-old, and believed Jacob may never be able to tie his own shoes.

At age three, Jacob was enrolled in 60 hours a week of intensive special education therapy. At nine, Jacob started work on an original theory of astrophysics. By 11, he was enrolled in university in Indiana.

In an earlier interview this summer on CBC program The Current, Jacob said that he believes his autism is directly related to his level of intelligence and interest in physics.

"In my opinion, autism is just a sense of focus," Jacob said. "I've seen some autistic people who end up becoming very successful engineers, very successful computer scientists and if you narrow what it is they're doing you will see amazing things."

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