Hyperlexia: Frequently Asked Questions
What is hyperlexia?
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.
Is hyperlexia always a part of autistic spectrum disorder?
No. While many books, articles or websites indicate that hyperlexia always is a sign or symptom of autism or some other developmental disorder, our studies, and studies of some others, find that not always the case.
What types of hyperlexia do exist?
Dr. Treffert has received many “I’ve got a son or daughter who………” emails from parents inquiring about possible savant skills in their child. After analyzing several hundred such e mails from parents whose child was an early reader, Dr. Treffert identified three types of hyperlexia.
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.
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.
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.
What significance do these types of hyperlexia have from a diagnostic standpoint?
Hyperlexia 1 is not a disorder as such and really does not require nor warrant a diagnosis. The differences in intervention strategies, educational placements, outcomes and long term implications of an ASD diagnosis warrants caution when applying an ASD diagnosis to a child who reads early, or speaks late. (more about late speaking children later) While early diagnosis and early intervention are to be applauded in all children with developmental delays, if the child has hyperlexia as a presenting symptom and ASD is a possibility, a differential diagnosis approach should be considered before applying a definitive diagnosis of ASD. A period of watchful expectation will reveal the natural history of the disorder and whether the hyperlexia falls into type 2 or type 3.
What is the most appropriate intervention to help a child with hyperlexia 2 or 3?
There are three interventions that have been reported to be especially helpful in children with hyperlexia 2 or 3. Those include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and play based ABA (applied behavioral analysis). A sound treatment program using the child’s strengths and interests to help with areas of weakness is vital to success. Therapists who are open minded, willing to adapt the child’s goals and curriculum, and creatively and cooperatively solve problems are best suited to deal with the unique challenge these children present. Finding the right people to implement the child’s treatment plan is critical to success.
The most important thing to remember is to use written language to help teach the child the skills they need. When in doubt, write it out. This empowers the child by building confidence and reducing stress as they stay within their comfort zone during the learning process.
The main, critical difference in intervention between children with hyperlexia 3, as opposed to hyperlexia 2, has to do with education placement. Hyperlexia 3 children benefit from being fully integrated into their classroom with same age peers. Alternative placements usually provide few appropriate communication partners and less opportunity to engage in social communication. Hyperlexia 2 children, in contrast, most
often benefit from alternative placement in special education classrooms because mainstream classrooms may be too over-stimulating and course material may be better taught and learned in more relaxed one on one arrangements.
Education placements must be individualized in either group taking into account each child’s individual skill set. Often parents need to become very active advocates on behalf of their child to obtain the most optimal school placement.
How do these same observations apply to children who speak late?
Dr. Stephen Camarata, professor in the department of Hearing and Speech Science at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine has made what are essentially these same findings with respect to hyperlexia 3 in some children who speak late. In a 1998 book titled “Late Talking Children” Thomas Sowell noted that some children, including his son who had delayed speech, displayed some “autistic like” behaviors and symptoms very similar to those seen in what I call hyperlexia 3. Like that group children with delayed speech had often been given a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder which they later “out grew”. He advised the same caution with respect to giving that definitive diagnosis in early childhood to those children who have delayed speech.
Following up on that work, Dr. Camarata published a book titled “Late-talking Children, a Symptom or a Stage?” in 2015. He likewise urges caution in applying an ASD diagnosis in children with delayed speech. Some of these late talking children, because of their precocity and fund of knowledge are referred to as having Einstein Syndrome. The book also provides intervention strategies and education resources for parents and teachers when they encounter a child who speaks late. A brief summary of his findings and recommendations can be found in an MIT Press blog titled “Five Minutes with Stephen Camarata”.
What’s a parent or teacher to do when encountering a child who reads early?
As elsewhere in medicine, the first step in treatment is to make the right diagnosis. When a child presents with hyperlexia, that diagnosis is best made by a multi-disciplinary team familiar with ASD and the several forms of hyperlexia described above. If the diagnosis involves an ASD consideration, that diagnosis should best be listed as a differential diagnosis until passage of time reveals the true nature of the “natural history” of the disorder. i.e. whether the hyperlexia fits the hyperlexia 2 or 3 category. Such a workup would generally occur at a child developmental or similar clinic and the multi-disciplinary team would ordinarily include a speech and language therapist. The final diagnostic findings would be shared with the school team responsible for the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for proper education decisions. And such a work up would provide the foundation as well for such other interventions as might be needed.
A more detailed description of these three forms of hyperlexia can be found here:
- Treffert, D. A., Bartelt, K., Dardis, B., & Mischler, B. (2017). Hyperlexia manual: a guide to children who read early. Fond du Lac, WI: Treffert Center.
- Treffert, D. A. (2012). Islands of genius: the bountiful mind of the autistic, acquired, and sudden savant. London: Jessica Kingsley.
- Treffert, D. A. (2013, July 8). Oops! When "Autism" Isn t Autistic Disorder: Hyperlexia and Einstein Syndrome. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/oops-when-autism-isnt-autistic-disorder-hyperlexia-and-einstein-syndrome/
- Treffert, D. A. (2015, December 9). Outgrowing Autism? A Closer Look at Children Who Read Early or Speak Late. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/outgrowing-autism-a-closer-look-at-children-who-read-early-or-speak-late/