Just before my oldest, D, was three, and still did not talk, he was already reading. Much before that, before a year old, he showed a fascination with letters and books. I loved reading growing up, so I was thrilled to have a son that would also enjoy getting lost in a good book.
What I didn’t know, was that D couldn’t have cared less about the story. He just liked the letters. He quickly learned the alphabet and easily identified all the upper and lower case letters. Soon after that he learned their sounds, which brought him a whole new level of giddiness. When he started putting those sounds together to make words, his joy was complete and that was what he did constantly.
We had some therapists that wanted us to take away the letters, and for a while I tried to comply, but letters are everywhere! Even if we took away his plastic letters, there were books and signs and toys with letters everywhere. In the end, we just decided to try to use reading and words purposefully. He was already reading, so why not use that skill to teach him the other skills he was lacking? This worked for us and by the time he was talking well, the reading (decoding) obsession faded. What remained was a tendency to read without comprehending what he was reading and that has taken years to address.
Hyperlexia is not defined in the DSM, so its definition is actually a bit fuzzy. There is a common theory that there are three types of hyperlexia:
Type I: A “normal” (known as neurotypical or “NT”) child that just reads very early. Development does not lack in any particular area.
Type II: A child on the Autistic Spectrum that reads well beyond language that they seem to have (receptive or expressive) otherwise. Many would call this a “splinter skill.”
Type III: A child that has some autistic traits, and seems to read beyond their language abilities, but the autistic traits fade in time.
I am not sure that these are great categories for several reasons. For one, hyperlexia type I is just an early reader. There is really no need to even give it a name. What do you call a child with no delays that jumps twice as high as his peers? A hyperjumper?
As far as type II, the whole idea behind the term, “splinter skills” is one that many people with autism have objected to. It conjures up the idea of a person that is “low functioning” (another not particularly helpful term) that has an interesting, though not particularly useful ability in music, art, math or some other area. The reason that people are surprised at these abilities is because they are presuming “incompetence” and low IQ. It would be better to just say that it is an area of strength, just as any of us may have greater abilities in any particular area. Also, reading is a very important skill, not some “fascinating” ability for people to stop and stare at like a circus act.
Also, I am not sure that hyperlexia type III actually exists. To say that the autistic traits fade in time may just be children that have successfully used reading and other abilities to “catch up” in areas of delay. The problem lies in how we define autism. Currently, it is primarily defined in terms of delays. However, if we could see what it actually is neurologically, I think that many of them would still have some of these characteristics, like my oldest, who has no real measurable delays anymore (falls into “normal” range) but still struggles in some of the common areas affected by autism (language comprehension, reading social cues, and others). We also know that the ability to read can be a tool to help the person move beyond their delays in development, even if they were born with the neurological make up that would describe a person with autism.
I think that hyperlexia can be better defined as decoding skills that are far above comprehension skills, accompanied by a fascination with letters and words. The term can be helpful when speaking to therapists and teachers because it helps them develop a plan to help the child. It lets them know that the written word can be a powerful tool for this child and that comprehension needs to be monitored.
My next son, P, was (is) an even more extreme hyperlexic. He read and spelled out words shortly after he turned two years old and surprised visitors and strangers with his spelling abilities. To this day, his favorite activities involve encoding (spelling) and decoding (reading) words. He also seems to understand language better if he sees it written first. Sometimes it seems that he just can’t find the words to say and he uses his iPad (with the LAMP Words for Life app) to make the sentence and then read it. Because he does have some spoken language, I was unsure if this type of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) would be useful to him, but it has become an important tool in our communication toolbox and I am so thankful that we have been allowed to use the iPad and app (for now) through his school. I am not sure what will happen next year when we will be homeschooling for a greater percentage of his day.
Some people have seen hyperlexia as a “disability.” Some have told us to avoid spelling with P, so that we don’t “feed his obsession,” even telling us to hide the letters, but I am glad that we learned by then that it was useless. It is just another way that he is his own person, with his own unique strengths and I choose to celebrate those strengths, not squelch them.