Hyperlexia:

A splinter skill or a learning style?



One morning (not the best time for me – getting ready for my work), my autistic son (who had started saying his first words at the age of seven – a few months before that day) suddenly said, ‘The weather was stormy and the family decided to stay at home.’

- Where did you hear that? What are you talking about?

I turned around to see that my boy was not talking to me, he was reading! His school textbook was open but not at the page with pictures illustrating the first letters of the alphabet. He was reading the text at the end of the book. After many weeks teaching my son to put letters together to form syllables, my son was reading whole sentences, showing that my ‘teaching skills’ were inadequate in his case.


Typically developing children acquire phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge and language skills as precursors to word reading. But some children start reading very early (before the age 5, or even before 3!) without having developed these skills. The children who display precocious and unexpected reading abilities have a very interesting (and still not fully understood) condition – hyperlexia.


The term was introduced by Silberberg and Silberberg in 1967, although precocious reading abilities had been reported much earlier (e.g., Parker 1919; Phillips 1930, Kanner 1943).


Hyperlexia is not included in medical diagnostic classifications, such as, for example, DSM-5 or ICD-11. That is why there is no universal agreement on the definition of hyperlexia: it is defined either as precocious reading ability accompanied by difficulties in acquiring language and social skills or a reading disorder characterised by advanced word recognition skills in a person with cognitive and language deficits, or it is considered a typical splinter skill in children with ASDs. However, some researchers believe that hyperlexia is not a ‘splinter skill’ but rather a key element of the child’s learning style (Kupperman 1997).


What we know about hyperlexia:

  • reading decoding is more advanced than reading comprehension (which is impaired);

  • deficits in reading comprehension are related to language comprehension problems;

  • the level of reading decoding is higher than expected when compared to age and intellectual functioning.

  • hyperlexic skills emerge before the age of five;

  • hyperlexia may co-occur with other developmental disorders (ASD, nonverbal learning disability, language disorder, social pragmatic communication disorder, Down syndrome, Turner syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders) (Ostrolenk et al. 2017).


Children with hyperlexia are fascinated with letters and words. This fascination is very intense:

  • they may spell the words orally or type them, or ‘write the words in the air’;

  • they prefer written words to pictures;

  • they teach themselves to read and constantly seek reading material (road signs, product advertisements in the shops, companies’ logos, books.

Prevalence


There are different estimates of hyperlexia prevalence: from 6% (Burd & Kerbeshian 1985) to 15% (Grigorenko et al.2002).



Hyperlexia in ASD


A little girl of 2 years and 10 months of age surprised her nursery teachers when she started devouring the books in the nursery library. When there were no more books left for her to read, she found a newspaper on the teacher’s desk and continued her obsessive activity. Her reading skills were impressive but, unfortunately her understanding of what she read was very low.


Nine per cent of children with ASD show early hyperlexic traits (before the age of three years) (Solazzoet al. 2021).


Macdonald, Luk, Quintin (2021) compared phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge and language skills in preschoolers with ASD, both with and without hyperlexia, and typically developing preschoolers. Their findings indicated that the group with both ASD and hyperlexia exhibited advanced word reading and letter naming skills as compared to the other two groups, but did not demonstrate commensurate phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondence, or language skills. It means we should use an alternative, non-phonological approach to early word reading in preschoolers with ASD and hyperlexia.


Hyperlexic reading as a learning style


To remediate weaknesses (reading comprehension and language comprehension problems), hyperlexic strength (such as, e.g., reading decoding skills, rote memory) can be used.


Using written language and reading as a strategy to improve functional speech / language comprehension, academic skills, social interaction:

  • written prompts, lists

  • written rules / social rules

  • written schedules

  • written questions and written answers

  • scripts and models for the child to repeat

  • reading, discussing and writing stories – to develop reading comprehension.


* * * * *

"I had several systems of reading. One was impressively fluent but without meaning, whereby the meaning would sink in well after the book was closed – hours, days, weeks, or months later. Another system was not so impressively fluent but was with meaning, albeit inconsistent and patchy. A third system involved silent scanning that would be too fast to speak out loud. Somehow all the unprocessed information from what got read got worked through somewhere in the back of my mind. Out of context and unable to be accessed deliberately, it would be understood nevertheless and could be triggered out of me." (Donna Williams)
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