I had the pleasure of meeting a young genius on Friday. Tom is three years old and looks like a little professor. He’ll turn four in August 2015 and can read, count to 100, knows all the colours, names of all shapes and probably other information we are not even aware of.
His parents contacted me and drove up two hours from the south of Sydney to see me, as he had been diagnosed on the Autistic Spectrum. Mum believes he is hyperlexic and obviously gifted, but the Autism ‘label’ didn’t sit so well with her. (Hyperlexia was initially identified by Silberberg and Silberberg (1967), who defined it as the precocious ability to read words without prior training in learning to read typically before the age of 5).
After an hour of him being very well behaved, sociable, chatting (admittedly mainly about letters, numbers and words), I have to agree with mum: There is much more going on than Autism and although there is nothing wrong with keeping that label, it really just matters what is now done to help him to participate more fully in life.
Most symptoms or traits of an AS client did not apply to Tom (I changed his name): He is not sensitive to sound, light, smell, touch – and just a bit fussy about food (only likes his fruit and vegetables in dried form). He is not obsessive about anything, nor obsessive-compulsive. Although he likes his iPad, he is not fussed when it is taken off him. He interacts with older children and adults, especially if they are interested in reading, letters and numbers. Playing with young children doesn’t really interest him. He voices his opinion (a good sign to see oppositional tendencies, which isn’t always the case with AS)
As I have noticed that he is not always present in his body, I have suggested to the parents to:
1. use the NOIT (Ron Davis device to help people to ‘individuate’), so he will be more present in his body, which will facilitate his toilet training, one area that he is behind and which will help him to be accepted by a pre-school like Montessori or Rudolf Steiner which would be much more suited to his needs. Being ‘individuated’ will also facilitate his awareness of the environment and others in it.
2. see me in 9 week’s time to start adding life concepts that he is not aware of: concepts of self, change, consequence, time, sequence etc. This will be a process to be done in stages of the next year or more, following Tom’s guidance and readiness.
3. use his fascination with letters to integrate all the concepts and also create meaning with words that don’t have obvious pictures (meaning), as I have noticed that almost all his words are the nouns he can visualize, not the prepositions, pronouns etc. that make up 70 % of what we read.
I am looking forward to meeting that lovely family and especially Tom again.
To learn more about ‘hyperlexia’, I have found this article from the Wisconsin Medical Society quite helpful:
Hyperlexia: children who read early—identifying the subtypes
Hyperlexia— precocious reading ability in very young children—can present itself in several ways. In one group some “normal” (neurotypical is the proper term these days) children simply read early; they may be reading at a sixth grade level at age 3 for example with no behavioral or other concerns. Eventually their classmates catch up in reading skills, but such advanced reading at a very early age understandably draws attention. This form of “hyperlexia” is not a disorder; it does not require treatment. These children, usually very bright, go on to have very typical, successful lives. I refer to this group as Hyperlexia I.
A second group of children who read early are some with autistic disorder where the hyperlexia is in fact sometimes viewed as a savant-like “splinter skill” associated with the autism. These children have other signs and symptoms of Autistic Disorder and the early reading is but one facet of that more pervasive disorder. Intervention and treatment in this group is directed at the underlying Autistic Disorder. However the precocious reading ability can itself be a valuable treatment tool for teaching language and social skills and should not be marginalized or disregarded as unimportant or frivolous. I refer to this group as Hyperlexia II. Unfortunately, as I will point out, some clinicians and other specialists hold that when precocious reading ability is present, and when coupled with comprehension, language and social difficulties, it is always part of an autistic spectrum disorder. I do not subscribe to that view.
Instead, there is a third group of children, many of whom have been brought to my attention through “I’ve got a son or daughter who…….” inquiries from the savant syndrome web site at http://www.savantsyndrome.com. This third group of children who read early present with a startling precocious ability to read, well beyond that expected at the child’s chronological age. The hyperlexia is coupled with an intense fascination with letters or numbers. Yet in spite of the intense preoccupation and ability with words, there are, correspondingly, significant problems in understanding verbal language. Comprehension of that which is masterfully read is often poor, and thinking is concrete and literal. There is difficulty with, and paucity of, abstract thinking. There may be some behaviors and symptoms commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders as well including echolalia (repeating rather than initiating conversation), pronoun reversals, intense need to keep routines (obsession with sameness), auditory or other sensory hypersensitivity, specific intense fears, strong auditory & visual memory, and selective listening with the appearance of suspected deafness. In this group of children these latter “autistic” traits and behaviors are only “autistic-like” however, mirroring those seen in autistic disorder itself. However, in contrast to those in Autistic Disorder, these “autistic-like” symptoms fade over time as the child “outgrows” his or her “autism” as some parents have described that transition. I call this group Hyperlexia III.
The purpose of this posting is to describe these different types of hyperlexia and to point out the necessity for careful differential diagnosis among them because of differing treatment and outcome implications, along with alleviating some of the unnecessary distress and worry in parents when a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder is applied prematurely and in error to some children who read early.