Kids with ASD [level 1]: 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 ASD level 1 [high-functioning autism]. 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 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.

Treatment—

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. 

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