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I find the topic of hyperlexia quite interesting!  James, Baby B out of my surviving quadruplets, is a precocious reader. I kid you not, when he was 18 months old, I was out driving around and James yells out, “Bank” to me as I was stopped at the light.  I said, “What” and looked around.  I see a sign for a bank just a little behind me on the side of the road. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “did he just read that?”  I had been working with all the kids using vocabulary flashcards since they were old enough to sit in a highchair, and I had a toy that made the phonetic sounds; however, I had not really seen any of the kids display any signs of being able to read. By the time James was 2 years old, he was reading small books. By the time he was 3 years old, he was able to text me because he could sound out words well enough to be able to use the predictive texting (by reading the words) on my phone.  It was AMAZING! It would still be a few more years, when James was 6 years old, I first heard the term hyperlexia. By the time James was in third grade he was in an online public school. The school wanted to test him to see where he was in his level of reading and reading fluency.  James ended up topping out the test at a 12.5-grade reading level with amazing fluency.  The school was impressed!  ?    Little did the school realize the significant issues James would have with reading comprehension. ?  More about that later.

What is hyperlexia?

Hyperlexia is the early ability for a child to be able to read. There are three types of hyperlexia.

Hyperlexia Type 1: This type of hyperlexia is seen in neurotypical children who have developed an amazing ability to phonologically decode words along with being able to comprehend what they are reading.  Often these children have strong fluid reasoning skills, a strong IQ score, strong visual-spatial skills, and a strong verbal working memory.  Many times these children go on to be labeled as gifted.

Hyperlexia Type 2: Children with Type 2 hyperlexia, this includes my son James, are children who have a fractured skill set along with having communication and social difficulties leading them to be diagnosed with autism.  James was diagnosed as Level 1 autism when he was two year old.  He shows many of the signs of Type 2 including struggling with reading comprehension.  Children with the splinter skill of hyperlexia can read college level material but do not have the ability to understand what they are reading.  James has spent the past year working on developing his vocabulary by working on root words. This has greatly increased his level of comprehension along with working around his other comorbid conditions associated with autism (his ADHD and low fluid reasoning).

Hyperlexia Type 3: This type of hyperlexia is quite interesting.  This group of hyperlexic children may display signs of autism like sensory issues,  reading early, talking late, and a strong visual memory. These children are at-risk to be improperly diagnosed with autism.  As these children age they tend to “outgrow” their autistic traits and behaviors. These children often have a very strong visual memory but are otherwise in the average range in evaluation scores.

Co-occurring conditions with hyperlexia?

The most common co-occurring condition associated with hyperlexia is autism.  This is why there is such a strong association with children being mistakenly labelled or diagnosed as autistic with Type 3 Hyperlexia.  Other conditions that can be associated with hyperlexia is ADHD/ADDSensory Processing Disorder,  22q11.2 deletion syndrome (22q11DS)  and even Dyslexia.    Honestly, I have to say, I was surprised when I was researching this article how little information there is out there on the topic of hyperlexia in the peer-reviewed literature!

There are no specific psychometric tests for hyperlexia.  You will see VERY high reading scores with hyperlexia on the KTEA 3 or high verbal scores on the WISC V.

Literature Review of Hyperlexia

Honestly, I have to say I was surprised when I was researching this article how little information there is out there on the topic of hyperlexia in the peer-reviewed literature! Beginning as recently as 1967, when the term was first used by Silberberg & Silberberg, generally these children have learned to read before age 5 with little or no training, and have this precocious reading ability combined with language difficulties (in spite of accelerated reading ability) and display significant difficulty in social relationships. These children come to speech and language disorder clinics with a variety of diagnoses such as “autism, behavior disorder, language disorder, gifted, precocious reading ability seen often as rote learning, splinter skills or savant idiosyncrasy” according to one such clinic, the Center for Speech and Language Disorders in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Usually parents of hyperlexic children, when they inquire of this website, have had their children go through numerous evaluations, with various confusing and contradictory diagnoses applied ranging from Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder or a language disorder, for example. In other instances there is no diagnosis applied except “precociousness.” Controversy exists as to whether hyperlexia is a serious developmental disorder such as autism, or whether it is in fact a speech or language disorder of a distinct and separate type, or, in some cases, it is simply advanced word recognition skills in a normal (neurotypical) child especially when sometimes accompanying “autistic-like” symptoms are present.

The literature to date is not a great deal of help in making the distinction between hyperlexia being an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or a separate, distinct language disorder. Importantly, though, it appears that in the latter instance the prognosis overall is quite good. According to Phyllis Kupperman and her co-workers at the Center for Speech and Language Disorders clinic in Elmhurst, Illinois, when such children were first seen at the clinic at age 2 or 2½ they had difficulty understanding language. They may use a few words but often they were echolalic. Their behavior in some ways looked “autistic”. However on follow-up these children emerged out of that “autism”, although some did retain some aloofness or antisocial or oppositional behaviors. But over time, the aloneness and self-stimulating behaviors decreased dramatically as language comprehension and expressive language improved. By the time many of the hyperlexic children were in the first or second grade many of the ‘”autistic” behaviors had diminished and while remaining aloof, the children did begin to socialize more. In short, they emerged significantly from their “autism” because it was not Autistic Disorder at all.

An article entitled “Reading Skills in Hyperlexia: A Developmental Perspective” by Kate Nation is another source of information on this condition. The lengthy article is a comprehensive review of the literature to that date. One section of the article examines the relationship of hyperlexia to developmental disorders such as autism. The author concludes that hyperlexia, while present in some children with Autistic Disorder, is not specific to Autistic Disorder or confined to that condition. Instead, hyperlexia can be seen in non-autistic persons, many of whom, however, do have transient autistic-like symptoms and behaviors.

Richman and Wood (2002) attempted to apply learning disability subtypes to children with hyperlexia, a condition characterized by a precocious ability to read words. Using a wide variety of measures, they identified two major groups, one group with language learning disorders and good visual memory but with high phonetic word errors, and one group with a nonverbal learning disorder and impaired visual memory and few phonetic errors but more word errors. They concluded that there are two subtypes of high functioning hyperlexia, one showing language deficits of dysphasia and one similar to visual spatial dyslexia.

In a 2018 article from  Lauterbach & Miles they confirm that children with autism  often have scores on reading accuracy and reading comprehension tests that are quite a large amount apart (discrepancy).  A 2018 paper by Zhang & Joshi they found about 96% of studies identified individuals with Hyperlexia from atypically developing populations. Hyperlexics’ high decoding accuracy can provide sound information and release some cognitive load for processing meanings (this makes it hard to read for comprehension). Hyperlexics’ poor listening comprehension skills may have affected their performance on phonemic awareness tasks (and is likely related to executive functioning or ADHD).   Žolgar-Jerkovic, Jenko & Lipec-Stopar’s 2018 paper shows that the evaluation of the importance of reading is related to one’s own perception as a reader, while the frequency of reading is more related to individual’s reading performance. Affective factors may be the cause or the consequence of reading difficulties and cannot be overlooked while planning a support.

In Johnels  et al.,  the authors explore current reading profiles and concurrent and early predictors of reading in children with autism spectrum disorder. Before the age of 3 years, the study cohort underwent a neurodevelopmental assessment following identification in a population-based autism screening. At age 8 years, reading, language and cognition were assessed. Approximately half of the sample (n = 25) were ‘poor readers’ at age 8 years, meaning that they scored below the normal range on tests of single word reading and reading comprehension. And 18 were ‘skilled readers’ performing above cut-offs. The final subgroup (n = 10) presented with a ‘hyperlexic/poor comprehenders’ profile of normal word reading, but poor reading comprehension. The ‘poor readers’ scored low on all assessments, as well as showing more severe autistic behaviours than ‘skilled readers’. Group differences between ‘skilled readers’ and ‘hyperlexics/poor comprehenders’ were more subtle: these subgroups did not differ on autistic severity, phonological processing or non-verbal intelligence quotient, but the ‘hyperlexics/poor comprehenders’ scored significantly lower on tests of oral language. When data from age 3 were considered, no differences were seen between the subgroups in social skills, autistic severity or intelligence quotient. Importantly, however, it was possible to identify oral language weaknesses in those that 5 years later presented as ‘poor readers’ or ‘hyperlexics’.

Wrap Up

All research for this article is embedded into the article’s links.  You are welcome to join us for more discussion on hyperlexia, 2E, and giftedness at our FB groups, IEP/504 Assistance for parents of public school students from all over the United States, or at our homeschool group, Homeschooling Special (Needs) Kids. We also have a group for all parents and caregivers of special needs children called Special Needs Parenting Advice and Support where we discuss ALL things related to special needs care. I hope to see you there!

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