Hyperlexia

A rarer offshoot of a learning disability today, and one that can almost be called a superability: my topic today is hyperlexia. There isn’t too much media-wise about hyperlexia, but what I have found is interesting.

Silberberg and Silberberg (1967) were some of the first people to define hyperlexia, and they called it “the precocious ability to read without prior training, before the age of 5”.

(Side note: I didn’t actually know until then that 5 was the average age. Being an only child for most of my life meant the first I knew that reading at 2.5 was unexpected was when other people found my surprise that my younger sister wasn’t reading at 3 odd).

Most people since then have used the early reading part of the definition, although some definitions also require cognitive or language disorder to be present- this changes how hyperlexia is diagnosed and/or studied.

The hyperlexic ability to easily decode words into their constituent part means people with hyperlexia can perform the mechanics of reading to an advanced level, such as being able to read at an adult level while still in primary school. Some hyperlexic people may also be able to learn foreign languages incredibly quickly as a result of this ability, by being able to intuitively connect words across languages, or work out the rules of a language more easily.

However, reading comprehension is either relatively poorer but still within a normal range, or severely reduced. This means someone with hyperlexia may be able to fluently read a passage out loud with no idea what actually happened in the text. For this reason, some people with hyperlexia will avoid reading fiction books, due to getting lost following characters intentions, and will instead prefer heavily technical non-fiction works. This might be connected with the links between hyperlexia and autism, as some people with hyperlexia also have poor real-life social comprehension, and other autism-related traits such as delayed speech .

There are thought to be three main types of hyperlexia:

  • Type 1: Neurotypical children that are just very early readers.
  • Type 2: Children on the autism spectrum who have very early reading (decoding) as a splinter skill.
  • Type 3: Very early readers who have “autistic-like” traits as children,  which fade as the child gets older. This is sort of a middle ground between types 1 and 2.
All of these types can cause arguments from people learning about hyperlexia, and usually the parents of people with it.
For example,parents of children with Type 2 hyperlexia can argue that treating hyperlexic abilities as an isolated “splinter skill” or an accidental side-effect of autism is demeaning, as to claim the abilities are simply a splinter skill makes them seem meaningless.

Parents of children with Type 1 hyperlexia can see the diagnosis of hyperlexia as pathologising giftedness in the same way that the overdiagnosis of ADHD pathologises normal behaviour. I do understand where that point is coming from, to an extent: if a child has the useful ability of reading early without the more negative hyperlexic traits such as difficulties in social situations then not much fuss needs to be made. However, this does run the risk of ignoring their future difficulties: while a dyslexic (for example) child with poor reading comprehension will be noticed and helped, the surface fluency of hyperlexics means comprehension issues are not often noticed.

For type 3’s, it’s confusion all round; not only can both of the above arguments be true at the same time, but accompanying autistic-like traits can also make things even more difficult. A fairly good story about this is from Newsweek.com , where the authour describes her experiences with her autistic and hyperlexic son. For type 1, a Reddit user answered questions about their experiences here.

There isn’t much agreement yet on what actually causes hyperlexia. Early research was focused on its link with autism, and suggested it was a marker for a specific subtype of autism. However, seeing as a few people have hyperlexia with no autistic traits, and we don’t actually know what causes autism yet, this doesn’t really help here.

Another idea about the cause of hyperlexia is that it could be the neurological opposite of dyslexia. An MRI study of a single hyperlexic person supported that idea, as the hyperlexic person had opposite brain differences to most dyslexic people. While this looks really interesting so far, it would be a lot more useful if this could be studied in a larger group of people to see if these differences hold up.

PS. One of the main reasons I was researching this was because it sounds a lot like some of my younger behaviour/abilities. Hyperlexia gives me an explanation for some of my unusual traits e.g, remembering information I’ve read for years after without being able to trace where it came from, the disconnect between my written and spoken vocabulary, and my being able to read sentences in a foreign language without knowing what language it is, and its the only thing I’ve ever read about that does. It was really interesting for me to read about something that I’ve never been able to really explain to people in real-life. I think feelings like that are why there needs to be more emphasis on explaining conditions, even ones that we don’t know too much about, as much as possible.

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