Hyperlexia: How is it Linked with Autism?
Hyperlexia, what the heck is that?
Hyperlexia is when a child can read when they’re really young, before they would typically be expected to. Many kids with hyperlexia aren’t taught how to read, but learn how to sound our words on their own.
Your kiddo may already have autism and you’ve heard the word hyperlexia pop up. Or, hyperlexia is something you’re hearing about for the first time.
When your child gets a diagnosis, it can be a whirlwind to understand what that diagnosis means. It only gets more complicated when you start to factor in your child’s unique characteristics. Are they a part of the initial diagnosis, a new diagnosis altogether, or just personality quirks that are “kids being kids.”
Hyperlexia is a syndrome characterized by a child’s ability to read at a very young age, even before speaking in some cases. These kids can learn to recognize and sound out letters, and numbers, without any formal teaching.
Here’s the key. While kids with hyperlexia are precocious readers, they often struggle with spoken language. This can be confusing because you may see your child reading at a 6th grade level by the age of 3, but not be able to comprehend the words you say to them.
Another important note is that a child’s advanced reading level does not indicate a high level of intellect in other areas.
While a child with hyperlexia may have impressive reading skills, they may struggle in every other way.
Similar to how “a child with autism is a child with autism,” the same is true for hyperlexia. As we’ll chat about next, hyperlexia is simply one plate on the table that makes up a child’s personality, struggles, and triumphs.
Hyperlexia Type 1
For kids with hyperlexia type 1, reading is a skill that comes early and easily, but no signs or symptoms of another syndrome show up. Basically, these are neurotypical kids who show advanced reading skills at young ages.
Some kids with hyperlexia type 1 go on to show academic prowess across the board, while others end up evening out with their peers as they grow up.
Hyperlexia Type 2
When a child with autism also shows prowess is reading and letter recognition, they are said to have hyperlexia type 2. Within this type, it may be that a child is predisposed to excellence in reading, or that their obsession with letters and numbers eventually morphs into a precocious reading ability. Basically, it’s a chicken or egg problem. Did the obsession with letters come first? Or was it the natural ability for reading that triggered an obsession for letters?
Hyperlexia Type 3
This can be confusing, so bear with me. Kids with hyperlexia type 3 have autism-like characteristics, but they eventually grow out of these behaviors and never receive an autism diagnosis.
A young child with hyperlexia type 2 and a young child with hyperlexia type 3 may appear very similar. They will both likely demonstrate precocious reading abilities and an obsession with letters and numbers. They will also demonstrate some of the behaviors more typically associated with autism like social awkwardness, sensory challenges, and communication issues.
Due to the similarities, some kids with hyperlexia type 3 can be mistakenly given an autism diagnosis.
While consulting with a professional is important when any new behavior comes up, it’s especially important in this case. A child with hyperlexia type 2 may require the same interventions as a child with type 3 through a certain age, but what happens after that needs to be determined by someone familiar with the condition.
Hyperlexia's Link with Autism
In short, the answer is no. Hyperlexia is a stand-alone condition that can exist in conjunction with a number of any other conditions. Just because a child has hyperlexia doesn’t mean that they also have autism. And, vice versa. Think of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Just because those ingredients are often seen together doesn’t mean that they always have to be. More importantly, they don’t define each other. Peanut butter is a complete and delicious food whether jelly is there or not.
As you noticed with type 2 and 3 though, autism and autism-like behaviors can be a huge factor in hyperlexia. This does not mean that they are the same though, or that one causes the other.
Is Hyperlexia a Splinter Skill?
A splinter skill is something that’s impressive, but not always useful by itself. Think about a child that can name every President, recite 45 numbers of Pi in order, or solve a puzzle in record time. These abilities are great, but they don’t serve a purpose in a larger context.
In some cases, a child doesn’t even know the meaning of their splinter skill. For example, a child may be able to recite 45 numbers of Pi in order but have no idea what Pi actually is.
Splinter skills are common in all children, but they’re especially noticeable in kids with autism. The key with splinter skills is whether they’re useful or not. Knowing 45 letters of Pi in order can be useful to a child that goes on to excel in math, but far less useful to a child that doesn’t go on the apply the information in any other way aside from memorization.
Hyperlexia can be a splinter skill if it doesn’t get incorporated into future skills or learning. As much as possible, a child’s skills should be used as a spring board for future learning. This is important, hyperlexia or otherwise. For kids with more significant challenges, hyperlexia may need to be a splinter skill, as further comprehension may not be possible. Otherwise, the more that kids can apply their abilities to new situations and discoveries, the more they will learn overall and ultimately benefit.
My Child is Showing Signs of Hyperlexia. What Should I Do?
Like usual, my first recommendation is to seek professional advice. Given the smorgasbord of characteristics that kids with hyperlexia demonstrate, you need an assessment of your child’s unique situation. Following an assessment, you’ll have much more clarity about your child’s strengths and struggles.
Depending on their needs, kids with hyperlexia often end up regularly seeing speech therapists, occupational therapists, or ABA therapists. If you want to know more about how an occupational therapist can help your child, check out my article on the topic.
In general, keep in mind that a child with hyperlexia often succeeds with written information, but struggles when that same information is presented verbally. Be conscious of the strategies that may be helpful for your child but may be atypical from their peers. Always keep your child’s teacher in the loop so that you can be a team in helping your child succeed.
Take Advantage of Your Child’s Talents
As we chatted about with splinter skills, the more you can use your child’s abilities to foster further learning and development, the better. If your child is hyper focused on an interest, use that interest to develop skills in another area. Maybe your child will be more accepting of their math homework if it’s infused into their favorite Dr. Seuss story that they’ve been reciting the past few days.
Sensory play seems to be applicable to every situation! As your child may struggle with auditory processing, it’s best to involve as many other senses as possible into their learning. As much as possible, have your child see, touch, and feel what they’re learning.
Get creative with your child’s skills and help expand them into other areas. While your child may not be able to see beyond their obsession with letters and numbers, you or your child’s therapist can. Hyperlexia can be a great gift when framed in the right way and used for future learning.