The Connection Between Hyperlexia & Autism & Asperger's

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

In this lesson, we will learn about hyperlexia: the signs and symptoms, its effects on a child's daily life, and how it can be harnessed to help the child develop. We will discuss the three types of children with hyperlexia, and learn that not all of them have autism.

Early Bloomers?

Diagnosing children with autism spectrum disorders is not always clear. Some elements often seen in children with ASD are also seen in typical children. One of the most notable of these is hyperlexia, the precocious ability to read.

A child with hyperlexia is often able to decipher complex words at a very young age, typically between 18 months and 2 years. It is not something their parents taught them, and the parents are usually as surprised as anyone else. This advanced skill, however, is frequently paired with below-average reading comprehension, and delayed verbal language.

Part of a Pattern

If hyperlexia appears as a sign of autism, it never appears in a vacuum. Some of the most common symptoms accompanying it include:

  • impaired social skills
  • clinging to routine
  • echolalia, repeating of words or phrases heard, immediately or after a delay
  • sensory processing disorder, difficulty tolerating lights, sounds, touch or other sensory input
  • concrete thinking, and difficulty with abstract language and ideas
  • selective listening, sometimes to the point that the child appears deaf
  • relatively good memory, particularly for things heard and/or seen

Not Always Obvious

Many experts in the field of child development note that not all children who demonstrate very early reading skills are on the autism spectrum. They identify three categories of children with hyperlexia.

Some children who read early are simply typical kids reading early (hyperlexia 1). Some show the usual behaviors associated with autism, whether mild, as with Asperger's syndrome, or more severe (hyperlexia 2).

The children who fall into the group often called 'hyperlexia 3' throw the medical community for a loop. They exhibit some autistic-like behaviors, but not others, and often those behaviors fade with age. These are the youngsters frequently pointed to as having 'outgrown' autism, when in reality, they probably never had it to begin with.

Three Children, Three Stories

To illustrate, let's look at three children, all patients of pediatrician Dr. Leonard.

Kayla was almost two when during a checkup she asked for a flyer from a rack on the wall. Amused, the doctor handed it to her. Then he and her mom both stood open-mouthed as Kayla sounded out the information about vaccinations! At their next visit, Kayla's mother reported that her daughter was earning quarters reading headlines aloud from the morning paper to her dad's buddies at their morning coffee-shop get-togethers, got in trouble in kindergarten for reading Nancy Drew books at naptime, and had progressed to writing her own detective stories with the neighbor kids as collaborators.

Martin's family noticed odd behaviors at a young age, spinning his toys, dishes and even himself around. He didn't make eye contact and didn't talk much, but repeated much of what he heard. At two and a half, he got into the family Scrabble game and started spelling out long words with the tiles. When his dad tried to engage him in an actual game, he refused and got upset when his tiles were disturbed.

Kimberly began to read things in her environment at about the same age as Martin and Kayla: signs everywhere, labels at the store, and more. She was awkward with strangers, slow in learning to speak, and physically rather clumsy. Like Martin, she liked things in order and sometimes became distressed if her things were moved. However, once she became familiar with someone, she opened up and was sweet and loved to play.

Dr. Leonard listened to all the concerns of Martin's mom and dad and referred him to be evaluated for autism. After talking with her family, Dr. Leonard also referred her for an autism spectrum assessment. He did not refer Kayla since she showed no signs associated with autism.

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