What Is Hyperlexia?

Toddler reading books


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What Is Hyperlexia?

The term hyperlexia was coined in 1967 and is typically characterized by four features. These include having advanced reading skills, learning to read early without being taught, having a strong preference for letters and books, and having an accompanying neurodevelopmental disorder. 

"When the term was first used, back in the 1960s, hyperlexia was specifically used to describe children with neurodevelopmental disabilities who also showed fairly excelled word-reading skills," explains Laura Justice, PhD, an expert in speech and hearing science and a distinguished professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University. "There are different ways that hyperlexia is defined (or diagnosed), with the most common being a distinction between one’s cognitive abilities and reading abilities, such that reading abilities excel well beyond that expected based on cognition."

In other words, kids with hyperlexia are often self-taught readers who can read well above what is expected at their age but struggle to understand what they are reading. They excel in knowing how to decode written words but struggle with comprehension.

Hyperlexia and Autism

Fifty years after the term hyperlexia was first introduced, this condition is now linked to autism and is often reported as one of the savant abilities in autism. However, scientists have yet to determine how it relates to autistic cognition and typical reading acquisition.

Robert Naseef, PhD

This characteristic is common in autism. [Kids with autism] often recognize the words but struggle to comprehend the meaning of the text or the paragraph.

— Robert Naseef, PhD

"Kids with this intense interest in letters enjoy reading words but have trouble with meaning," says Robert Naseef, PhD, a psychologist with expertise in autism that practices at Alternative Choices, an independent psychology practice in Pennsylvania. "This characteristic is common in autism. [Kids with autism] often recognize the words but struggle to comprehend the meaning of the text or the paragraph."

Overall, hyperlexia is strongly associated with autism with 84% of cases of kids with hyperlexia being identified as on the autism spectrum. Yet, only 6 to 14% of kids diagnosed with autism will have hyperlexia. It is also possible for hyperlexia to occur alongside other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Signs and Symptoms

The most obvious and common trait associated with hyperlexia is accelerated word-reading skills, says Dr. Justice. The next most common is an intense fascination with letters, other printed forms, and sometimes even numbers.

"Sometimes parents will notice that their young child is totally fascinated with letters the way another child might be fascinated with trucks, trains, balls and so on," says Dr. Naseef. "Many times, they have a love for letters even before they know the sounds of the letters." 

Laura Justice, PhD

Brain imaging studies also indicate that areas of the brain associated with visual processing may have greater activation among persons with hyperlexia.

— Laura Justice, PhD

Once they start reading or decoding the words in books, kids with hyperlexia will appear to be exceptional readers, but they have trouble answering a conversational question because there is so much language demand.

"I have had students who come into school reading 'Junie B. Jones' but do not have the underlying language skills to accompany reading at that level," says Diane Ouimet, MA, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist in a central Ohio school district. "In other words, they can read at a high level early on, but they cannot comprehend what they are reading."

Ouimet believes the structure and predictability of the alphabet is part of the draw toward letters, words, and books for kids with hyperlexia. To them, reading is a repetitive, restrictive behavior with decoding as the primary goal rather than comprehension.

"Assessments of reading-related skills among children who are hyperlexic also indicate a tendency to have very good visual-perceptual skills (e.g., rate at which letters can be detected, mental rotation of numbers)," says Dr. Justice. "Brain imaging studies also indicate that areas of the brain associated with visual processing may have greater activation among persons with hyperlexia."

Identifying Hyperlexia

Hyperlexia is often present at an extremely early age, sometimes even during the toddler years. In fact, some children with hyperlexia will exhibit advanced reading skills when they are about 2 to 4 years old. And, some with this condition may even begin reading when they are toddlers.

"Parents might notice their child's fascination with letters as early as 18 months," says Dr. Naseef. "For instance, they might enjoy playing with magnetic letters. If your child is constantly looking at the letters, manipulating them, and totally fascinated with them, you might want to talk to their pediatrician about it because there might be other symptoms there as well."

At that point, the healthcare professional might evaluate their reading ability. They also might determine if the child is interested in other types of play, responsive to their parents, or interested in playing with other kids, says Dr. Naseef. All of these characteristics help paint a picture of whether or not hyperlexia might exist.

Meanwhile, if your child is older and seems to be extremely good at sounding out words and reading books, take a closer look, especially if they are learning to read outside of the typical social context. For kids with hyperlexia, reading is something they do alone and is often self-taught. If you notice this pattern in your child, talk to a healthcare professional or ask for a referral for a more specialized evaluation.

Although there is no specific test for hyperlexia, a neuropsychologist or other healthcare professional may be able to identify characteristics of hyperlexia in your child by talking with them. They may be able to gauge your child's understanding of language.

Sometimes hyperlexia can missed initially. Often, parents and teachers focus so much on the students' strengths that they do not recognize the comprehension issues. If your child is an extremely early reader, you should check their comprehension. Ask them to tell you what happened in the story or ask specific questions related to the text, especially if they have other learning difficulties.

"Remember, some of these kids are really good at hiding," says Ouimet. "They have such great skills that a parent might see something before teacher sees it. Drill down and get a little more specific, especially if they struggle with narrative skills."

It is also important to note that most of the time hyperlexia does not occur on its own. A child who is hyperlexic may also have other learning difficulties or behavioral issues.

Additionally, according to Dr. Naseef, hyperlexia is not clearly defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Instead, hyperlexia is listed as a part of autism, so if your child has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, you may want to watch for signs of hyperlexia as well.

The key is that you continue to monitor your child's early reading and keep track of your observations so that you can share them with your child's healthcare provider. The sooner hyperlexia is identified, the sooner your child can start developing skills needed to address any comprehension or language issues that exist.

Treatment for Hyperlexia

Although decoding words efficiently and accurately is a necessary part of reading, it is not the only skill needed for academic success. Students also must be able to comprehend what they are reading as well as integrate what they have read into their homework and other school activities in order to be successful.

For this reason, kids with hyperlexia will likely need to work with a variety of specialists like speech language pathologists and neuropsychologists so that they can learn ways to address their reading challenges.

It is important to note that there is no set way to treat hyperlexia. In fact, the best treatment plans not only consider the whole child but are designed to help them maximize their potential.

"The first question to ask is—what are their strengths and weaknesses?" says Ouimet. "Then ask, how can we use those strengths to work on those weaknesses?"

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, it also can be helpful to think of students with hyperlexia as "swiss cheese readers." In other words, their reading skills look solid on the surface, but there are holes related to comprehension that become more noticeable as they get older and their coursework becomes harder.

Keep in mind that as a parent, you are a big part of your child's treatment plan. You will often be the first person to recognize what your child needs as well as what is working and what is not working. Take notes on what you observe and communicate regularly with your child's teachers, therapists, and healthcare professionals.

Your child's treatment plan will likely evolve and change as they grow and learn and you play a vital role in that. Overall, kids with hyperlexia might need to participate in speech therapy, practice communicating, and receive lessons teaching them how to understand what they are reading.

Tips for Coping with Hyperlexia

If your child is diagnosed with hyperlexia or simply has characteristics of hyperlexia, it is important to put together a team of professionals that can help them build their comprehension skills. The earlier intervention takes place, the more likely it will be that they can be given the tools they need to build their comprehension skills.

Diane Ouiment, MA, CCC-SLP

While it is normal and automatic for parents to jump to conclusions or consider worst-case scenarios, you need to try not to.

— Diane Ouiment, MA, CCC-SLP

"They need some help along the way to build phonological awareness," says Ouimet. "There also is a lot of language load in school. Kids with hyperlexia and autism are being asked a lot every day and at the end of day they are tired."

It is important to remember this and provide outlets that help them unwind and relax. You also need to make sure you are being supported as well. Dealing with a condition like hyperlexia can be both perplexing and frustrating. Educate yourself with reliable resources and try to avoid entertaining worst-case scenarios.

"Some students will learn skills through their education or therapy that may help them close those gaps and other students may always struggle," says Ouimet. "While it is normal and automatic for parents to jump to conclusions or consider worst-case scenarios, you need to try not to."

Ouimet suggests seeking out a speech pathologist or asking for a referral. She also encourages parents to talk to your child's teachers because they often have ideas on what you can do at home to support what your child is learning at school.

"[But] at the end of the day, be a parent," says Ouimet. "Love them and take care them. They have a learning difference, so make sure they have the tools and resources they need. There is a big jump between third and fourth grade where kids go from learning to read to reading to learn. We don’t want to send kids on to middle school without that skill."

A Word From Verywell

If your child is reading at a remarkably young age, it does not automatically mean that they are hyperlexic or that they are on the autism spectrum. Sometimes gifted children will begin to read at a very young age, too. The key is to recognize your child's early reading ability and talk to a professional about it. They can help determine your child's learning abilities and if treatment is needed.

If your child is diagnosed with hyperlexia, remember that this means they have a unique way of learning and communicating. Do not shy away from having your child evaluated. A diagnosis will allow for any deficits in the reading process to be identified so that your child can learn new skills for meeting these challenges. With the appropriate intervention, they can learn how to maximize their potential.

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2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ostrolenk A, Forgeot d’Arc B, Jelenic P, Samson F, Mottron L. Hyperlexia: Systematic review, neurocognitive modelling, and outcomeNeuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2017;79:134-149. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.04.029

  2. American Speech Language Hearing Association. Recognizing comprehension pitfalls in early readers with autism.

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