Hyperlexia in Children – What It is & How to Identify It
“Hyper” means “better than” or “above” and “Lexia” means reading. Therefore, hyperlexia is defined as the ability to read exceptionally at an early age without age-appropriate speech and language skills. It is a learning disability that is often accompanied by language deficits. Though precocious reading may seem like a very good thing, hyperlexia could be a sign of an autism-like or an autism syndrome, especially when the child has delayed speaking abilities.
What is Hyperlexia?
The presence of advanced reading skills in very little children is the hyperlexia definition. Hyperlexia is unexpected and precocious reading skills and abilities in little children at a very young age. Children with hyperlexia also have a significant difficulty understanding and using normal verbal language like other children. Children with hyperlexia syndrome may have significant difficulties with social interactions as well.
Types of Hyperlexia
1. Hyperlexia I
Though this is relatively rare, Hyperlexia I is diagnosed when ordinary children have the ability to read at a very early stage. This means that as they enter kindergarten, they will have the ability to read at a seventh-grade level.
2. Hyperlexia II
When kids on the autistic spectrum are hyperlexic, it is categorized into Hyperlexia 2. These children will be obsessed with numbers and letters, arranging them together endlessly. They are likely to take magnetic tablets of letters and numbers to bed instead of stuffed animals and toys. They may also be obsessed with memorising birthdays, license plate numbers, GPS-like trip directions, or the solar system. These children may also show a few other signs of autism, such as avoidance of eye contact, isolation, being adverse in receiving or giving attention, and may also be sensitive to any other forms of sensory overload. They are also likely to read very early.
3. Hyperlexia III
Children with Hyperlexia 3 also read very early and for a short period of time. They are likely to show autistic symptoms which usually fades away. Other Hyperlexia type-3 symptoms include impressive memory for movies or music and while reading, the verbal language may be delayed for a period of time while comprehension can be very remarkable. Moreover, they have no problem maintaining eye contact, giving and seeking attention, and will be socially comfortable, especially around adults.
Causes of Hyperlexia
The reasons for hyperlexia in children are still not known though many studies and research have been conducted. Some researchers think that the reason for hyperlexia at a very young age is the result of deliberate or obsessive reading practices. For examples, there are a few anecdotes of children:
- Becoming very attached to certain books and alphabets and reading them every day, continuously.
- Becoming very compulsive readers at the expense of other forms of communication.
- Having obsessive interests in number and letter blocks.
- Reading numbers and letters from the number of plates on the parking lots.
- Reading every bit of print they see around them (eg. Books, manuals, signs, and notices).
Signs of Hyperlexia
There are a few other hyperlexia symptoms you may notice in your children, and a few of these are similar to autism, such as:
- Difficulty in answering “Wh-“questions, like “What”, “Who”, “Where”, “Why”, and “when”.
- An extreme fascination with maps, letters, numbers, or other visual patterns.
- Memorization of sentence structure or sentences, without understanding the meaning of those sentences.
- Echolalia, meaningless repetition of words spoken by a person nearby, usually done by a kid just learning to talk.
- Unsocial or Awkward social skills.
- Rarely starting or continuing a conversation.
- Difficulty interacting with people around, including parents or other close adults.
- Difficulty coping with transitions due to the intense need for monotony.
- An extreme need for uniformity and to keep routines or ritualistic behaviours.
- Very unusual or specific fears.
- Only thinking in concrete and very literal terms, and difficulty with concepts that are abstract.
- Sensitive sensory capabilities.
- Selective listening skills, and may reach a point that they seem deaf to most people.
- Strong visual and auditory memory skills.
- Self-stimulatory behaviour, such as rocking, jumping up and down, hand clapping, or flapping.
- A normal development or growth until around 18-24 months, and then a regression.
Reading and Communication Skills of a Hyperlexia Affected Kid
Hyperlexia is characterised by an extreme fascination with numbers or letters and an advanced ability to read. Hyperlexic children have reading skills at levels far beyond what is expected at that age. These children may start reading at a very young age, even from the age of two, and even without any reading instruction. Children with hyperlexia have incredible auditory and visual memories and they may also remember everything they hear and see without even taking effort. They will often also show echolalia and yet this exceptional memory will not help with understanding or with speaking language. Though they have extreme reading skills, they have limited communication and vocabulary difficulties.
Children with hyperlexia do not learn to speak the way other children do. Most children develop language skills by listening to sounds and learning how to make them while understanding the meaning of their words. Children then normally advance to using complete words and sentences. However, children with hyperlexia learn to speak in a very different way. They may memorize sentences, phrases, or even entire conversations from books, movies, and television.
Hyperlexic children rarely take part in interactive conversations or initiate conversation. In order to express what they have in their mind, to create original expressions, the child must be able to dissect what they have previously memorized, which hyperlexic children find it really hard to do.
Difference Between Hyperlexia and Autism
Hyperlexia and Autism are not the same, although these conditions have many overlapping traits and characters, and many children are diagnosed with both together. The main difference between the two conditions is the precocious self-taught capability to read.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulty in communication and behavioral problems. Sometimes, autistic children may show above-average abilities in one or even more certain aspects of learning.
Hyperlexia in children may come with autism, and hyperlexia can be one of the first signs of autism in children that parents notice. Autism is a clinical diagnosis, and this means that there is no one single test to diagnose the condition that excludes or confirms the condition in little children.
A few common characteristics shown by children with autism are:
- Ritualistic behaviour.
- Self-stimulatory behaviour.
- Literal and concrete thinking.
- Difficulty understanding abstract concepts.
- Normal developments until 18-24 months, followed by regression.
- Obsessed with routines.
- Sensitivity to smells, touch, and sounds.
- Difficulty changing from one activity to another.
- Uncommon fears.
- Selective listening.
However, it is important to note that not all autistic children are hyperlexic and not all hyperlexic children are autistic.
How to Help a Child With Hyperlexia
The first and most important intervention that hyperlexic children should receive is the language and speech therapy. This therapy should be considered as the base, and all the other therapies revolving around it. Training for developing social skills must also be incorporated into language and speech therapy as a part of the educational program for hyperlexic children.
Dealing with information that is extra sensory can be difficult for hyperlexic children to comprehend, so to help with the sensory processing deficit in children, sensory integration therapy will be helpful. The children’s early reading abilities can become a tool to communicate with them and teach them other skills.
Identifying hyperlexia as opposed to autism in children will allow caregivers and parents to understand the learning style of the children and develop appropriate strategies for hyperlexic children. Even though many people suggest that it must be because of an autistic spectrum disorder that a very little kid acquires an extraordinary fascination with letters and words and an extraordinary reading ability, along with other social and language problems, a complete evaluation with a differential diagnosis of various types of hyperlexia is required. Moreover, the same is needed when the child speaks late and not early.
1. How Common Is Hyperlexia?
Somewhere between 5-10% of children with autism are believed to be hyperlexic as well. Therefore, it is relatively rare.
2. If a Child Has All The Signs/Traits Of Hyperlexia But Isn’t Reading, Is It Still Hyperlexia?
The simple answer to this is no. However, some children who cannot read at the age of 2 and 3 may still develop sight-reading or decoding at the ages of 4 or 5 and this may be diagnosed with hyperlexia.
3. Is Hyperlexia a Stand Alone Diagnosis?
No, hyperlexia is currently not a stand-alone diagnosis. It is often given as a label along with autism. It does not appear as an official diagnosis in psychological and psychiatric diagnostic manuals. Instead, it is a practice label.
4. Does Hyperlexia Ever Go Away or Fade?
Hyperlexia does not go away as this is a neurological difference. Once a child is hyperlexic, he or she will always be hyperlexic. However, the intense fascination shown in the early years will lessen in intensity and the passion for numbers and letters may fade or even transition to other interests.
Accurate and early identification of hyperlexia can be beneficial for the kid. Children with Hyperlexia are often very intelligent and highly-gifted. They have an extreme interest and curiosity in learning and older children with hyperlexia may often be academically gifted and highly verbal. At times, these gifts may be so obvious that you will need to give very little attention to the language difficulties of hyperlexia or the very nature of the learning style of hyperlexia.