Hyperlexia is a syndrome characterized by an intense fascination with letters or numbers. Children with hyperlexia show a very advanced ability to read, much higher than kids their age. Hyperlexic children often begin reading at very young ages, sometimes at age two.
Mix this condition with a child with autism and you’ve got yourself a whole lot of confusion. Between 5 – 10% of children with autism are estimated to be hyperlexic as well.
My oldest child, Jonathan, was all of two and a half when this incident happened. My husband and I took him to the park at Edmonton, Alberta for a family outing. We were both holding each of Jonathan’s hands and playing with him. “1-2-3 weeeee!”, “1-2-3 weeeee!” we went. That’s when Jonathan spotted a truck with the words ‘recycle’. The next thing we heard out of his mouth was “re-cy-cal”. My husband, Jim, and I looked at each other in amazement as we realized he had just read his first word.
Now Jonathan was autistic and just barely learning how to talk, let alone read. We were so taken by surprise that we actually didn’t believe it at first. We thought, “Wow! We have a gifted child in our hands.”
We were so excited that we called the Autism Society to tell them all about it. We spoke to a lady called Anita who, after hearing us patiently, informed us that this was hyperlexia and while it was certainly wonderful that Jonathan was able to speak, he may not be comprehending what he’s saying. Poof!
Hyperlexic children are brilliant at visual and auditory memorization. This means that they easily pick up things that they see and hear. They do not learn language the way that most other children do – sounds to words to phrases to sentences to conversations. Instead, they memorize what they hear and have a challenge in deconstructing sentences to find the meaning of smaller phrases within them. Therefore, they cannot comprehend what they read. In fact, they also find it very difficult to create original expressions.
Long story short, some children with autism demonstrate this phenomena and can lead many parents down the wrong pathway. What Jonathan was doing was showing an innate ability of repeating things that he heard other people say when they saw the visual construction of the word ‘recycle’.
Such kids are amazing readers and with the right communication strategies, you can gradually increase their comprehension skills. With hyperlexic children on the autism spectrum, enhancing their comprehension skills will give them a boost that can even make them surpass their peers in language and communication. That is really something you should be aiming for!
For me, I’m glad that we were given the right direction to recognize it for what it was. Thanks to that, we took immediate measures to get Jonathan into a proper intervention program to encourage his comprehension skills.