Overview of Hyperlexia in Children

young boy reading with father
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If your very young child has an unusually advanced reading ability, your child may be gifted or may have a disorder called hyperlexia.

"Hyper" means above or better than, while "lexia" refers to reading. Hyperlexia is exceptional reading ability at an early age without age-appropriate language and speech skills. It is a learning disability accompanied by language deficits.

While precocious reading may seem like it can't be a bad thing, hyperlexia can be a sign of autism or an autism-like syndrome when it is accompanied by a delay in communication abilities. Early and accurate identification of hyperlexia can benefit your child. A child with hyperlexia may need intervention to gain communication skills, while a gifted child may need to be provided with more challenging material.

Understanding Hyperlexia

Hyperlexia is a syndrome characterized by an intense fascination with letters or numbers and an advanced reading ability. Children who have hyperlexia read at levels far beyond what is expected at their age. They often begin reading when they are very young, sometimes as early as age two, and without reading instruction.

Children who have hyperlexia have excellent visual and auditory memories, and they have a tendency to remember what they see and hear with little if any, effort. They will often exhibit echolalia, which is the repetition of phrases and sentences without understanding the meaning. Yet this exceptional memory does not help with speaking or with understanding language. While hyperlexic children have advanced reading skills, they generally have a limited vocabulary and communication difficulties.

Learning to Speak

Children who exhibit hyperlexia don't learn to speak the way most children do. Most children develop language skills by learning how to make sounds while trying to understanding their meanings. Children then typically advance to using words, and then sentences. Children who have hyperlexia learn to speak in a different way. They memorize phrases, sentences, or entire conversations from television, movies, or books.

Communication

Children who have hyperlexia rarely initiate or take part in interactive conversations. To express an idea, a child with hyperlexia must be able to dissect what they have memorized to create original expressions, which is something they usually have a very hard time with.

Hyperlexia and Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by behavioral problems and difficulty communicating. Sometimes, children with autism may exhibit above-average abilities in one or two specific aspects of learning.

Hyperlexia may be present with autism, and it can be one of the first signs of autism that parents notice. Autism is a is a clinical diagnosis, meaning that there is no single diagnostic test that confirms or excludes the condition.

Common characteristics of autism include:

  • Self-stimulatory behavior
  • Ritualistic behavior
  • Concrete and literally thinking
  • Difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Usually normal development until 18-24 months of age, followed by regression
  • Need to keep routines
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  • Sensitivity to sounds, smells, and touch
  • Unusual fears
  • Selective listening (may appear to be deaf)

How to Know If Your Child Has Hyperlexia

If your child is an early reader, you may wonder whether your child has hyperlexia. Not all early readers are not hyperlexic. Some, in fact, are simply gifted. It can be difficult for parents and teachers to recognize the difference between a gifted early reader, a child who is hyperlexic, and a child who is hyperlexic with autism.
It's important, however, to remember that hyperlexia is a complex disorder. Remember, early reading alone is not a sign of hyperlexia. Children who have hyperlexia have low reading comprehension that 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.

There are several challenges in distinguishing whether a child who is an early reader has a disability or not, and a few helpful strategies can help you recognize the difference.

  • While most children have a limited vocabulary, gifted children may be more interested in understanding the meanings of the words and phrases they use than children with hyperlexia.
  • Children who are gifted can be guided more easily to other challenges, such as reading a different book or trying to learn words in a different language. Children who have hyperlexia are more likely to resist different types of tasks.
  • All young children display immaturity and frustration. Children who are gifted may act out, have temper tantrums, and behave in a way that is self-centered. Children who are autistic may display less sensitivity to other's feelings in these situations than typical children.

If your child has some symptoms of hyperlexia, it may make sense to ask your child's pediatrician for a referral for an evaluation. If your child is simply an early reader, though, your best option to is to encourage plenty of opportunities to enjoy it!

Sources:

Åsberg Johnels J, Gillberg C, Kopp S. A Hyperlexic-Like Reading Style Is Associated With Increased Autistic Features in Girls With ADHD. J Atten Disord. 2017 Jan 1:1087054716685838. doi: 10.1177/1087054716685838. [Epub ahead of print]

 

Ostrolenk A, Forgeot d'Arc B, Jelenic P, Samson F, Mottron L. Hyperlexia: Systematic review, neurocognitive Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017 Aug;79:134-149. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.04.029. Epub 2017 May 3.modelling, and outcome.

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