Hyperlexia – What is Hyperlexia? Types of Hyperlexia and Autism
If your child is diagnosed with hyperlexia, the first thing you may think to yourself is, “what is hyperlexia?” Some people contend that hyperlexia should just be considered autism. However, others argue that hyperlexia is a completely different condition, and should be considered as such. Sometimes, you may hear stories of children “outgrowing” or “recovering” from their autism. However what they are really outgrowing is hyperlexia, which has autistic-like symptoms which can be prematurely and mistakenly misdiagnosed as an autistic spectrum disorder.
What is hyperlexia?
What is hyperlexia? Hyperlexia is a syndrome characterized by a child’s very early ability to read, combined with a difficulty in understanding and using verbal language, and problems with social interactions. Hyperlexic children are also characterized by having average or above-average IQs, as well as the word-reading ability well above what would be expected given their age. The word hyperlexia is derived from the Greek terms hyper, which means “over” and léxis, meaning “diction”, or “word”.
There are many characteristics similar to autism and some consider hyperlexia to be an autism spectrum disorder. Because of its close association with autism, hyperlexia is often misdiagnosed. Often, hyperlexic children will learn to speak only by memorization and heavy repetition. They may also have difficulty learning the rules of language from examples from their parents, or from trial and error (see more on echolalia). Though the child may appear gifted in some areas such as reading and logic, the main characteristic of hyperlexia is the precocious, self-taught ability to read words well above their age level, which usually appears before the age of 5, along with a significant difficulty understanding verbal language.
These are the other common signs of hyperlexia. You may notice how many of these are similar to autism:
- An intense fascination with letters, numbers, maps, or visual patterns
- A difficulty answering “wh-” questions, such as “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, or “why”
- Echolalia, which is the meaningless repetition of another person’s spoken words, usually done by a child just learning to talk
- Memorization of sentences or sentence structures, without really understanding the meaning
- Awkward or unusual social skills
- Difficulty interacting with other people, including their parents or other adults, or other peers
- Rarely initiating conversations
- An intense need for sameness and to keep routines, ritualistic behaviors
- Difficulty with transitions because of the intense need for sameness
- A difficulty with abstract concepts, and only thinking in concrete, and very literal terms
- Very specific or unusual fears (check out how most phobias start)
- Selective listening skills, to the point that they may seem deaf to others
- Sensitive sensory capabilities
- Strong auditory and visual memory skills
- A normal development until about 18-24 months, then a regression
- Self-stimulatory behavior, such as hand flapping or clapping, rocking, jumping up and down
Types of Hyperlexia
Usually, parents of hyperlexic children have had to go through numerous evaluations and received various confusing and contradictory diagnoses applied ranging from autism, Asperger’s, or even Attention Deficit Disorder (or ADHD). Some children with autism do have types of hyperlexia, but it is not specific or confined to autism. Instead, hyperlexia can be seen in non-autistic persons, many of whom do have short-term autistic-like symptoms and behaviors. To help avoid misdiagnosis, hyperlexia can be further divided into three distinct types of hyperlexia.
First type of hyperlexia
The first type of hyperlexia is found in a child who is very bright, but neurotypical, who learns to read very early. Usually, after the parents have read to the child several times, the child begins to “read” the book which is actually rather their memorization of the book triggered by the words and pictures on the pages. However, the child does soon learn to actually read and understand the words in the book, and can then begin reading other books. Their reading ability is a couple of years ahead of other children in their age range or pre-school class.
Second type of hyperlexia
The second type of hyperlexia occurs in children who have hyperlexia as a “splinter skill” as a part of an autistic spectrum disorder. Children with hyperlexia type II read a great deal, with unusually skillful memory for what they have read. These children also have the ability of memorization tasks, or number and calendar date calculation skills. They do have the characteristic language, social, and behavioral symptoms seen in autism.
Children with type II hyperlexia often raise the “savant syndrome” questions with some clinicians labeling the hyperlexia a “splinter skill”. However, as pointed out earlier, the precocious reading ability can be a valuable tool for teaching language and social skills. Instead of being marginalized or trivialized as a “splinter skill”, therapists should try to embrace hyperlexia and use it as a treatment tool.
Third type of hyperlexia (Hyperlexia III)
The third type of hyperlexia is a less frequent diagnosis and found in children who read early and have autistic-like traits, but they do not have autism. These children read early, show extraordinary memorization abilities, and sometimes have other precocious abilities in other areas. They have some autistic-like behaviors, but they do not have the full autistic disorder. For example. These children can still be affectionate towards their parents, but still distant towards their peers. Their symptoms and behaviors are seen as autistic-like and are not Autistic Disorder. These are the children who “outgrow” their autism, but really they did not have autism to begin with.
Hyperlexia- How to intervene
The first and main intervention that children with hyperlexia receive is speech and language therapy. This therapy should act as the base around which all other interventions revolve. Social skills training should also be incorporated into that speech and language therapy as part of the child’s educational program. Dealing with extra sensory information can be difficult for children with hyperlexia to comprehend, so sensory integration therapy can help with the sensory processing deficit those children have. The early reading abilities of these children can provide a tool to communicate and teach them other skills. Identifying children as having hyperlexia as opposed to autism can allow parents and caregivers to understand their learning style and develop appropriate strategies.
Even though you may suggest that it must because of an autistic spectrum disorder that a very young child acquires a precocious reading ability and extraordinary fascination with words, accompanied by other language or social problems, a comprehensive assessment by a professional familiar with the differential diagnosis of the various forms of hyperlexia is needed. Additionally, the same is true when a child speaks late rather than reads early. Hopefully, there will be more clarification regarding the classification of hyperlexia, and more resources will be available for the evaluation and appropriate treatment for parents and children.
Do you have any questions? Leave me a comment below! 🙂
Treffert, D. (2013). Oops! When “Autism” Isn t Autistic Disorder: Hyperlexia and Einstein Syndrome. Scientific American.
Treffert, D. (2011). Distinguishing autistic-like behaviors from Autistic Disorder. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 110(6); 281-287.
Whaley, J. What is Hyperlexia? How to Intervene? Retrieved from http://www.ldail.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=13:hyperlexia&catid=12&Itemid=112.
Elsie is a public health professional working in education and research. She is a lifelong learner, and is especially interested in mental and behavioral health. She loves travelling and spending time with her dog.