Overview of Hyperlexia in Children

young boy reading with father
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Does your very young child find it easy to name letters and numbers? Can she read words even before she seems able to speak properly? If so, your child may have a disorder called hyperlexia.

Understanding Hyperlexia

Hyperlexia is a syndrome characterized by an intense fascination with letters or numbers and an advanced reading ability. Hyperlexic children read at levels far beyond those of their age mates and often begin reading at very young ages, sometimes at age two.

While hyperlexic children have advanced reading skills, they generally have difficulties understanding and using spoken language. Unlike other children, hyperlexic children don't learn to talk the way most children do. While most children progress from learning sounds to words to sentences, hyperlexic children memorize phrases, sentences, or entire conversations from television, movies, or books. To express an idea, the children must be able to dissect what they have memorized to create original expressions.

Hyperlexic children have excellent visual and auditory memories, which means they easily remember what they see and hear. They use their memory to help them learn language. They will often exhibit echolalia, which is the repetition of phrases and sentences without understanding the meaning.

Given their difficulty with spoken language, hyperlexic children rarely initiate conversations.

Hyperlexia and Autism

Hyperlexia is sometimes a symptom of autism. If your child with hyperlexia is also autistic, he may have problems socializing and behaving appropriately. He may also exhibit other characteristics of autism including:

  • Self-stimulatory behavior
  • Ritualistic behavior
  • Concrete and literally thinking
  • Difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Normal development until 18-24 months, followed by regression
  • Need to keep routines
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another

Additional characteristics of autism often include the following:

  • Sensitivity to sounds, smells, and touch
  • Unusual fears
  • Selective listening (may appear to be deaf)

Are All Early Readers Hyperlexic?

All early readers are most definitely not hyperlexic. Some, in fact, are simply gifted. This reality, however, is not always recognized.

Silberman and Silberman, who first used the term in their 1967 paper "Hyperlexia: Specific word recognition skills in young children," describe a continuum of reading ability with children who have disabilities such as dyslexia on one end, children with no reading problems in the middle, and at the other end children who "are able to recognize words mechanically at a higher instructional level than indicated by their intellectual potential." 

The problem with this analysis of hyperlexia is that it doesn't account for gifted readers, even though it includes them in the description of a type of hyperlexia. It is just another way that gifted behavior becomes "pathologized."  That means that people are seeing a problem where no problem exists.

How to Know If Your Child Has Hyperlexia

If your child is an early reader, you may wonder whether your child has hyperlexia. In fact, you may encounter people who tell you that you should seek help for your child to diagnose and treat this condition. 

It's important, however, to remember that hyperlexia is a complex disorder. Remember, early reading alone is not a sign of hyperlexia. While hyperlexic children are fascinated by words and letters and do learn to read without instruction at very young ages, their comprehension does not usually match their ability to recognize words. They also exhibit problems with spoken language, often unable to put words together to express their ideas or understand the spoken language of others.

If your child exhibits the symptoms of hyperlexia, it may make sense to ask your pediatrician for a referral for an evaluation. If your child is simply an early reader, though, your best option to is to encourage him with plenty of opportunities to enjoy reading!