What is Hyperlexia and what distinguishes the three types?
Hyperlexia is precocious and unexpected reading skills and abilities in children way beyond their chronological age. It is a fairly recently named condition (1967) although earlier descriptions of precocious reading do exist. The early reading itself is often preceded by intense and obsessive interest in letters and numbers as an infant (Treffert, D.A.(2011)
These are normal (neurotypical) children who simply read early. The ability is attention-getting and conspicuous because of its early onset compared to their peer group. Hearing a nursery school child reading books to his or her classmates is quite astonishing. Usually that reading ability is accompanied by comprehension. Over time most of the other children also learn to read at expected ages so hyperlexia 1 is a transient ability, just ahead of its time in otherwise normal children. (Treffert, D.A.(2011)
All information on this page is taken from an article written by Darold Treffert and the citation is below. To read the full article, click on the PDF button.
It has been recognized for many years that some children with autism or related conditions have a permeating and excessive interest in letters and numbers, spending many hours obsessively arranging or re-arranging magnetic letters on the refrigerator or any other surface, or perhaps writing or re-writing them anywhere convenient, including the walls or sidewalk. This is accompanied by unusual memorization of these letters or numbers. Often this obsessive preoccupation extends to arranging and re-arranging toy cars, puzzle pieces or other such objects.
Eventually this number/letter obsessiveness morphs to early reading ability in jarring juxtaposition to other developmental limitations. Very often an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis has already been applied, or other diagnoses such as PDD/NOS, Aspergers, behavior disorder, language disorder, learning disorder or gifted have been used.
These compartmentalized super-abilities are often referred to as ‘splinter skills’ in autistic youngsters and in addition to early reading can include music, art or mathematical abilities for example. Usually remarkable memory capacity is present as well. While ‘splinter skill’ implies a skill such as hyperlexia is unimportant or can be disregarded, the opposite is true. The reading ability can be used to support development of language and social skills. Teachers need to recognize it as a strength and valuable teaching tool.
These children comprise the Hyperlexia 2 group. The early reading ability is indeed a part of an autistic spectrum condition as often described in some books, articles or web sites. In these children the hyperlexia is accompanied by other cognitive, learning or social skill difficulties usually seen in ASD including some symptoms or behaviors such as echolalia, withdrawal, stimming, insistence on sameness, poor eye contact, repetitive behaviors and resistance to both giving and receiving affection, for example. They often have difficulty with auditory processing and sensory integration (Treffert, D.A.(2011)
These children show the same preoccupation with letters and numbers very early as infants and later begin to read. They too show many of the characteristic signs, behaviors and symptoms of ASD as seen in hyperlexia 2. Like children with hyperlexia 3 they often have difficulty with auditory processing, sensory integration and social delays. But unlike children with hyperlexia 2, the “autistic-like” behaviors in hyperlexia 3 children fade over time with very positive outcomes and little or no autistic residual.
The fact that the “autistic-like” features and behaviors fade over time does not mean that happens all by itself. Often those “autistic-like” symptoms, communication difficulties, sensory integration disorders and social awkwardness require the same interventions, for a time, as in hyperlexia 2 individuals taking into account the learning style of all children with hyperlexia.
Typically parents often describe these children as much less withdrawn and more engaged, particularly with adults, than is often the case with ASD children. There is much more eye contact and involvement in both giving and receiving affection. Overall they tend to be more socially comfortable and the maladaptive behaviors are less intense and less frequent than seen in more classic “autism”. Hence the term “autistic-like”.
A more detailed description of these three forms of hyperlexia, along with examples of each group can be found in the paper referenced below: Hyperlexia III: Separating ‘Autistic-like’ Behaviors from Autistic Disorder; Assessing Children who Read Early or Speak Late.
A number of success stories in this group both from parents, and some first person accounts from hyperlexia 3 persons, now adults, document more positive outcomes in hyperlexia 3 than hyperlexia 2. While this progress is sometimes referred to as “outgrowing” autism, that is a misnomer since these individuals, now relatively symptom free, were given a mistaken diagnosis in the first place (Treffert, D.A.(2011)