Children who read early or speak late: separating ‘autistic like’ behaviors from ‘autism’

Darold Treffert MD
pretty girl with many books at school

Children who read early (hyperlexia) or speak late (Einstein Syndrome) have something in common.  Both are often mistaken for autism, and much to relief of many parents, both have a good outcome.

There are three kinds of hyperlexia:  Hyperlexia 1 consists of bright, neurotypical children who simply read early.  Watching  a child read books out loud to his or her nursery school class is always quite startling.  But eventually most other children learn to read as well so that gap disappears over time.

Hyperlexia 2 consists of children who do have autistic disorder and  the fascination with letters and numbers very early as an infant is what is called a ‘splinter skill’ savant ability.  These children also have massive memory for birthdates of family and friends, license plate numbers, geography, sports trivia, or ver batim movie recall, credits and all, for example.  Outcome depends on the severity of the autistic disorder.

Hyperlexia 3 consists of children who are likewise fascinated with letters and numbers.  They may read all the names of items on the shelves in a supermarket or pharmacy.  They have some ‘autistic-like’ symptoms such as unusual sensory sensitivity, echolalia, stimming, and obsessive-compulsive or repetitive behaviors.   But they lack the withdrawal seen in autism spectrum disorder.  They make eye contact and give and seek affection.

They have massive memory also for a variety of trivia and can recite with accuracy and length movie scripts, musical compositions or books.

The bad news is that these children are often misdiagnosed as having Autistic Spectrum Disorder and put into special education classrooms where they clearly do not do well.   The good news is that these children “outgrow” their “autism” with excellent outcomes and later adjustments.  Unfortunately in the meantime parents are subjected to needless worry and pessimism.

A more detailed discussion of these types of hyperlexia can be found in a Wisconsin Medical Journal 2010 article by Dr. Treffert here.

That same scenario is seen in children with delayed speech who, much to their parent’s worry and distress, speak late.  That predicament of mistaken diagnosis of autism in these children is described in great detail in a book by Dr. Stephen Carmarata of Vanderbilt University.  The book is titled Late Speaking Children: A symptom or a stage?  Like the children with hyperlexia 3, the outcome is very positive and quite ‘normal’.  It is called Einstein Syndrome because some of these children are exceedingly bright “little professors” as their childhood progresses.

Space precludes exploration and explanation in depth here, but mention of these conditions can provide caution regarding an autism diagnosis in these children, and can provide relief and hope to worried parents whose children are reading early, or talking late.

Visit agnesian.com/treffert-center-events to join in the conversation with Dr. Treffert.

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