Hyperlexia

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A rarer offshoot of a learning disability today, and one that can almost be called a super-ability: my topic today is hyperlexia.

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”.

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 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 .

Silberberg and Silberberg set out three types of hyperlexia:

  • Type 1: Neurotypical children who are simply 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 type definitions can cause arguments, both from people learning about hyperlexia and also the parents of people with it.

For example, parents of children with Type 2 hyperlexia could can argue that treating hyperlexic abilities as an isolated “splinter skill” or an accidental side-effect of autism is demeaning, because claiming that the abilities are simply a splinter skill makes them seem meaningless.

Parents of children with Type 1 hyperlexia could argue that the diagnosis of hyperlexia pathologises giftedness in the same way that some diagnoses of ADHD pathologise active behaviour or focus issues caused by other circumstances . I do understand where that point comes from : 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 approach does run the risk of ignoring their future difficulties; while a dyslexic child with poor reading comprehension will be noticed and helped, the surface fluency of hyperlexic children means their comprehension issues often go unnoticed.

For people with type 3, there’s confusion all round. Not only can both of the above arguments be true at the same time, but accompanying autistic-like traits can make things even more difficult. A fairly good story about this is from Newsweek.com, where the author 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 focused on its link with autism, and suggested that hyperlexia could be a marker for a specific subtype of autism. However, seeing as some people have hyperlexia with no autistic traits, and we don’t actually know what causes autism yet, this avenue can’t lead to a full solution.

A later about the cause of hyperlexia is that it could be the neurological opposite of dyslexia. An MRI study of a single hyperlexic child tentatively supported this idea, as the child studied showed small differences in areas of the brain involved in visual processing and in understanding sounds. The authors of this study suggested that these differences could mirror those found in dyslexic children. While this idea looks really interesting, it must be studied at much larger scale to be useful.

PS. One of the main reasons I was researching this was because it sounds a lot like some of my younger behaviour/abilities. 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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