Many years ago, a family came to CSLD with their 3-year-old son because he was showing symptoms of autism. While I talked with the parents, the boy dumped a box of crayons on the floor and was busy arranging them. After a few minutes, we looked down and were amazed to see that he had formed letters with the crayons and spelled out PONDEROSA STEAK HOUSE. When we gave him plastic letters, we found that he could spell many words even though he could not yet say all of the words. When we researched ways to use this precocious ability to develop his communication skills, we came across a small body of literature with conflicting ideas about hyperlexia.
Since then we have seen hundreds of children with hyperlexia from all over the U.S. and other countries of the world. At CSLD, we apply the term hyperlexia to precocious readers who also have symptoms of some other developmental disorder. They all read before age 5, yet each one is a unique individual. Some have symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Some precocious readers have language disorders or social (pragmatic) communication disorders. Some love letters and learn the alphabets of various languages. Some read and spell words at two and three. Some phonetically decode any word they see and can read their parents’ medical books. Some have wonderful memories and recognize a vast number of sight words. They may not understand everything that they read, but they usually understand about as well as they understand oral language.
At CSLD, our focus has been to develop intervention strategies to use the strength and interest in reading to improve weaknesses in language and social communication. We also provide support and training to parents and professionals who are working with these wonderful and interesting children. I have been lucky to have been able to follow many individuals with hyperlexia from early childhood through adulthood. We have seen that the hyperlexic learning style persists throughout life, but many individuals have succeeded academically and in their work life. Although the outcomes are impacted by the severity of the associated disorders, using the reading abilities has helped each reach their full potential.
Please explore the information and resources on hyperlexia and do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of service to you and your family.
Phyllis Kupperman, M.A. CCC/SLP/L
What is hyperlexia?
Hyperlexia is a term that describes a child's precocious ability to read (far above what would be expected at their age or developmental level) within the context of another developmental disorder.
What do we know about its diagnosis?
Although hyperlexia may be the key symptom in describing the learning difference in a child, it is not a stand-alone “official” diagnosis. Rather, it exists on a continuum with other disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, specific language disorder or social (pragmatic) communication disorder. Children with hyperlexia may also exhibit other conditions, such as sensory integration dysfunction, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, childhood apraxia of speech, motor dyspraxia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and/or seizure disorder.
We have often been asked why we identify children with hyperlexia if they have other diagnoses or conditions. The most important reason is that these children learn primarily through reading, so the therapeutic and educational programs that we devise for them must take their reading skills into account. The reading skills of these children are their strength, and we use this strength to develop their weaker skills.
Children with hyperlexia are delightful, interesting and challenging. They have taught us about learning, language and life. We have found that there are new concerns at each stage of development, and our work with these children is never done. The children we worked with in the early days were a capable group. Most of them did well academically, thanks to a lot of hard work by their parents and teachers. However, their learning style persisted, and they needed to be taught in the way that THEY learned. As we treated many more children over the years, we realized that there is a spectrum of outcomes depending on the severity of the disorders associated with the hyperlexia.
Identification of hyperlexia is most important when children are young, because early intervention increases children's chances for success, and since reading is a powerful tool for learning language and social skills, Once a child begins to understand verbal language, written language can be gradually decreased and used only in certain situations when something new or confusing is introduced. Although symptoms tend to decrease over time, the characteristic learning style remains through adulthood.
What have we learned?
After identifying, working with and following several hundred children with hyperlexia for over 30 years, we have learned the following:
- Children with hyperlexia often have a difficult time processing what is said to them, but they are lucky because their language learning can be supported by written language. Once a child begins to understand verbal language, written language can be used less frequently, such as when something new or confusing is introduced.
- English is a difficult and confusing language. Wh-questions (who, what, where, when and wh.v) need to be specifically taught using written and verbal prompts and scripts. Ask the question and give the answer. Teach how to create a narrative or tell a story. Frame experiences or behavioral patterns using written words.
- Rote learning is okay. Routine is good. Computers, tablets, videos and books are great teaching tools, since they are predictable.
- Although rote leal1ling is good, a child with hyperlexia also needs to be taught about the flexibility of routine and language.
- Incorporate what each child is interested in into lessons (for example, maps, dinosaurs, cars, plumbing, cartoon characters).
- Punishment does not work. What does work is setting up a positive reinforcement system that will support the behavior you desire to teach. Write what you want the child TO do, not just what NOT TO do.
- Children with hyperlexia have benefited from a variety of educational settings and therapeutic approaches as long as their reading abilities are recognized and used to help them learn. Educational programs need to be adapted to fit their language learning differences.
- Each year is different. Parents and professionals need to evaluate programs and interventions based on the child's needs that year.
- Medications, diets and nutritional supplements are not cures, but they may help particular symptoms, such as anxiety, obsessive/compulsive symptoms and attention deficits.
- It is important to script coping language for the child in an effort to decrease negative physical behavior.
- Occupational therapists have lots of good ideas. Consult an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration techniques.
- Social skills are important and need to be specifically taught and practiced. Boys and girls need different kinds of social language groups until the teen years, at which time communication between boys and girls is the issue.
- Some people will never understand, and that is okay. Appreciate those who make the effort.
- "Write, write, write, because the child with hyperlexia will read, read, read." Susan Martins Miller
- "When in doubt, write it out. (If it isn't written, it may not exist.)" Canadian Hyperlexia Association
Children with Hyperplexia
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a child who is not yet reading, but is very interested in letters, considered hyperlexic'?
Strictly speaking, these children are not hyperlexic because they are not reading. Some children who do not read at 2 or 3 years old may still develop reading decoding or sight-reading at 4 and 5 years old and may then be diagnosed with hyperlexia. Some children who are strong visual learners, though not readers, may still benefit from the intervention techniques developed for children with hyperlexia.
Do children with hyperlexia understand what they are reading?
They understand what they read about as well as they understand language in general. Many children with hyperlexia have difficulty processing what people say to them. They may have a difficult time using language for thinking and reasoning. They also usually understand concrete language better than abstractions or inferences. Reading supports language learning because it makes the language visual. Therefore, language learning improves, and reading comprehension also improves.
What causes hyperlexia in children?
The presence of hyperlexia within the context of another developmental disorder probably reflects a difference in the neurological organization of the brain. While a cause is not yet known, research in genetics and functional MRI studies may provide some information in the future.
Isn't hyperlexia just a savant skill or a "splinter skill"?
A savant or splinter skill is an isolated ability that appears within individuals with developmental disabilities. Generally, these skills have no relationship to other aspects of the individual's functioning. Hyperlexia is not an isolated skill, but a tool which can be used to develop language, to modify behavior and to help the individual make sense of the world.
Does the presence of hyperlexia mean that the children are" higher functioning"?
In working with a large number of children with hyperlexia, we have seen a spectrum of outcomes. Some children, though they may be excellent readers, may exhibit severe and persistent symptoms of autism. Other children have great difficulties developing verbal expressive language, though their written expressive language may exceed their verbal abilities. Some children may do well academically, but may have difficulties socially. It is hard to predict what a child with hyperlexia will be like as a young adult; however, we do know that using writing to supplement their learning leads to better progress.
Do children with hyperlexia get better?
Children with hyperlexia do improve in language and social skills. Some individuals improve to the point that they are able to go to college, live independently, drive a car and succeed in the workplace. Others will need special education and supervised living arrangements throughout their lives.
Accessing CSLD’s Hyperlexia Services:
Services Across the Lifespan
As children with hyperlexia progress through their early childhood and school years, we provide help in meeting the ever increasing challenges of academic life and demands on social abilities. We show families how to adapt curriculum material to promote learning, we devise programs for higher-level reading comprehension and we help children develop age-appropriate social conversational skills.
Evaluation: assesses reading skills, language skills and social skills through formal testing, observation, parent interview and record review.
Intervention: is individualized for each child. Each treatment …
- Is evidence-based
- Takes into account the interests and strengths of the child
- Uses written language and visual materials to support language learning, reading comprehension, and social skills.
- Uses tablets, computers and books to support learning
- Seeks to help parents, teachers and therapists understand the learning style of children with hyperlexia.
Out of town Families:
- Phone/Skype Consult
- Extended Evaluation: This includes a comprehensive assessment, followed by 120 minutes of family training. The aim of the extended evaluation is to provide an evaluation of communication skills, in addition to providing information regarding learning styles, tips for family and teachers working with the client at home, and for the clinician to model therapy techniques and provide coaching to the parent so they can implement these at home.
- Additional Family Training sessions while you are in town
To inquire further about services or schedule an appointment contact 630-652-0200 or email [email protected]
Hyperlexia: Therapy that Works: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
By the Clinical Staff of the Center for Speech and Language Disorder
This is a practical guide with intervention strategies for children with hyperlexia. The reading skills of these children are their strength and we use this strength to develop their weaker skills. Please click here to download a copy of this publication.
Children with Hyperlexia – Revised 2002
Produced by CSLD – 12 minutes
This video provides up-to-date information about hyperlexia and its relationship to other disorders. Viewers will have a better understanding of why hyperlexia should be identified. The principles of intervention for children with this syndrome are illustrated with examples of therapy sessions. Click here to watch!
Reading Too Soon: How to Understand and Help the Hyperlexic Child
By Susan Martins Miller
“How can a child read so well but not understand what I say?” This is only one of the questions answered in this timely book. Reading Too Soon will be helpful to parents, other family members, caregivers, teachers and therapist who want to see a child with hyperlexia move more toward successful independence. Click here to download a copy of Reading Too Soon.
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