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Children with High-Functioning Autism: "Gifted" or Hyperlexic?

Parents who have discovered that their young child is "gifted" because he/she may be able to recite the alphabet at 18 months of age - or can read words by the age of 2 - may want to reassess the situation.

Hyperlexia often coexists with High-Functioning Autism and Aspergers. Hyperlexia is not seen as a separate diagnosis; however, with current fMRI research revealing that hyperlexia affects the brain in a way completely opposite to that of dyslexia, a separate diagnosis may be on the horizon.

Children with hyperlexia may recite the alphabet as early as 18 months, and have the ability to read words by age two and sentences by age three. Many are overly fascinated with books, letters, and numbers. However, the child’s ability is looked at in a positive light, so many moms and dads delay in getting their “precocious” youngster any help because they believe that he/she is a blooming genius.

Hyperlexia has many characteristics similar to Autism, and because of its close association with Autism, hyperlexia is often misdiagnosed. The main characteristics of hyperlexia are an above normal ability to read coupled with a below normal ability to understand spoken language. Many of the social difficulties seen in hyperlexic children and teens are similar to those found in Autism. Often, hyperlexic kids will learn to speak only by rote memory and heavy repetition. They may also have difficulty learning the rules of language from examples or from trial and error.

Hyperlexic kids are often fascinated by letters or numbers. They are extremely good at decoding language and thus often become very early readers. Some hyperlexic kids learn to spell long words (e.g., elephant) before they are two years old and learn to read whole sentences before they turn three.

Hyperlexia may be the neurological opposite of dyslexia. Whereas dyslexic kids usually have poor word decoding abilities but average or above average reading comprehension skills, hyperlexic kids excel at word decoding but often have poor reading comprehension abilities.

Some experts denote three explicit types of hyperlexics, specifically:
  • Type 1: Neurotypical kids that are very early readers.
  • Type 2: Kids on the autism spectrum, which demonstrate very early reading as a splinter skill.
  • Type 3: Very early readers who are not on the autism spectrum though there are some “autistic-like” traits and behaviors which gradually fade as the youngster gets older.

The severity, frequency, and grouping of the following symptoms will determine an actual diagnosis of hyperlexia:
  • A precocious ability to read words far above what would be expected at a youngster’s age
  • Abnormal and awkward social skills
  • An intense need to keep routines, difficulty with transitions, ritualistic behavior
  • Auditory, olfactory and / or tactile sensitivity
  • Difficulty answering "Wh–" questions, such as "what," "where," "who," and "why"
  • Difficulty in socializing and interacting appropriately with people
  • Echolalia (repetition or echoing of a word or phrase just spoken by another person)
  • Fixation with letters or numbers
  • Listens selectively / appears to be deaf
  • Memorization of sentence structures without understanding the meaning
  • Normal development until 18-24 months, then regression
  • Self-stimulatory behavior (hand flapping, rocking, jumping up and down)
  • Significant difficulty in understanding verbal language
  • Specific or unusual fears
  • Strong auditory and visual memory
  • Think in concrete and literal terms, difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Youngster may appear gifted in some areas and extremely deficient in others

Hyperlexia appears to be different from what is known as hypergraphia (i.e., urge or compulsion to write), although as with many mental conditions or quirks, it is possible that this is more a matter of opinion than strict science.

Despite hyperlexic kid’s precocious reading ability, they may struggle to communicate. Their language may develop in an autistic fashion using echolalia, often repeating words and sentences. Often, the youngster has a large vocabulary and can identify many objects and pictures, but can’t put their language skills to good use. Spontaneous language is lacking and their pragmatic speech is delayed. Between the ages of 4 and 5, many kids make great strides in communicating and much previous stereotypical autistic behavior subsides.

Often, hyperlexic kids have a good sense of humor and may laugh if a portion of a word is covered to reveal a new word. Many prefer toys with letter or number buttons. They may have olfactory, tactile, and auditory sensory issues. Their diets may be picky, and often potty training can be difficult. Social skills lag tremendously. Social stories are extremely helpful in developing effective age-relative social skills, and setting a good example is crucial.

Many moms and dads have had their hyperlexic kids go through numerous evaluations, with various confusing and contradictory diagnoses applied – ranging from Autistic Disorder to Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Aspergers, ADHD, or language disorder. In other cases, there is no diagnosis applied except “precociousness” or “gifted.”

Controversy exists as to whether hyperlexia is a serious developmental disorder like 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) youngster, especially when sometimes accompanying “autistic-like” symptoms are present.


The first step in treatment is to make the proper diagnosis. Then management of the condition follows. When precocious reading ability and extraordinary fascination with words presents itself in a young son or daughter – especially when accompanied by other language or social problems that might suggest an autistic spectrum disorder – a comprehensive assessment by a knowledgeable professional or team familiar with the differential diagnosis of the various forms of hyperlexia is indicated. 


Anonymous said...

Can be both; my son is hyperlexic, and gifted an asperger's.

Anonymous said...

Good way of looking at it!

Anonymous said...

Definitely both. My son is hyperlexic, Aspergers with an IQ somewhere over 160. The hyperlexia was really funny when he was little because his internal vocabulary was so much higher than his spoken vocabulary. Quite often we had to decode what he was saying, as he was pronouncing words phonetically due to only having read then instead of hearing them, e.g. ventriloquist, Egyptian.

Anonymous said...

Everyone told me my son was just gifted and very smart. He was spelling our last name, foltynski, by 2. I knew something was up when he wouldn't crawl and walked so late... he is improving so much now at 5. Signs of Aspergers is fading. Now we really only have the social and emotional issues.

Anonymous said...

My son is in the process of being diagnosed with Aspergers now. But, this article definitely applies to him. Does it matter if we call it Aspergers or hyperlexia? How do I know if he has both since the symptoms are very similar? Are the treatments different?

Anonymous said...

This is my son exactly! PDD-NOS, early reader, late (and odd) talker and still at age 15 pronounces words strangely because he reads way more than he hears/talks. He has a working memory IQ of 140 but very slow processing. Can you also cover the topic of selective mutism and how it might relate (or not) to autism/Aspergers sometime? My DS15 can speak well, but hardly ever does. He also listens quite selectively.

Anonymous said...

in general - I'd say I thought he was "Bright" - but @ Kristi ^ we are on the path to determining all 3 - A.S.~Hyperlexic~Gifted - & indeed he was/IS BRIGHT - in so very many ways - Aren't They All!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for all of the wonderful articles you post. Our 5-year old daughter was diagnosed with Aspergers last year, and we've found your website and posts to be really educational and useful. Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

My oldest child was assessed for ASD especially after my three boys were diagnosed with Asperger's. But they said no she was not ASD, although she is wayyyy more strict in terms of routine, comfort zone, being literal. She was diagnosed with severe anxiety, mixed receptive/expressive lang disorder, and auditory processing disorder. I finally realized the difference between her and my other three... internal drive. She is intrinsically motivated, whereas my boys... are motivated by sensory needs and rituals/preferred activities. It's been a fun, interesting ride with all these kiddos. I'd be bored without them ;)

Anonymous said...

We have a 2 ½ year old son with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency and some other undiagnosed problems. When we did the routine screening at his Pedi’s office, the Pedi said he showed possible Autism and wanted us to see a behavioral specialist (PALS Development Center in Lubbock, TX). When we went to see her, my sister and I showed her a couple of videos of him “Blacking out” during one of his meltdowns and hurting himself. We explained to her his sensory and tactile issues and other things we had noticed. This was the summer of 2011 when he was just 1 ½. She said “I don’t think he has Autism because he makes eye contact occasionally and has good interaction with us. I think he is pretending and acting this way because he does not feel good and he knows if he does this he can be left alone.” With that we left and drove the 1hour 45 min back home. Now he still have the same behavior and he is not only hurting himself(he just punched himself in the lip 4/13/12) but he is becoming aggressive towards others. The babysitter and I say he gets an “I’m going to kill you look.” My mom says his eyes go glassy. Brian’s mom says he looks possessed. He is gluten and casin free because a biopsy revealed those enzymes are there but don’t work fully/properly. Becoming concerned I emailed the behaviorist and she emailed me back saying Chris needed to see a psychologist, in which a immediately made an appointment. Again the psychologist could not put a true diagnosis on him because he said he could not find anything about Alpha-1 and behavior problems so he didn’t know if it was related to that. I asked him if Chris could possibly have Asperger’s and he said that he could diagnose him with that because that diagnosis is being taken out of the medical books. He ended up diagnosing him with Adjustment Disorder- nonspecific and said he was developmentally and environmentally delayed. I don’t know what to do and no one (even the sitter) understands him and just want to spank him and punish him all day long. I know there are times he needs to be put in time out but my husband and I are getting frustrated.

Ettina said...

Most of the time autism isn't serious, either. People tend to think about low functioning autism, but the majority of autistic people are high functioning.

Melissa said...

Thank you for that comment. We are in the process of having our son evaluated for possible things, and your comment truly did put me at ease. He's still the bright, wonderful kid he's always been despite the quirks and frustrations that have led us to seek help. New "labels" feel serious, but you're right. The high functioning version actually isn't that serious when put in perspective. Again, thank you for the right words at the right time. ❤

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