If you’re confused about what hyperlexia is and what it means for your child, you’re not alone! When a child is reading exceptionally well for their age, it’s worth learning about this rare learning disorder.
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between a gifted child and one who has hyperlexia and is on the autism spectrum. A gifted child might just need their skills nurtured more, while a child who is on the spectrum may need special attention to help them communicate better.
Still, hyperlexia alone doesn’t serve as an autism diagnosis. It’s possible to have hyperlexia without autism. Every child is wired differently, and by paying close attention to how your child communicates, you’ll be able to get them the support they need to maximize their potential.
Hyperlexia is when a child can read at levels far beyond those expected for their age. “Hyper” means better than, while “lexia” means reading or language. A child with hyperlexia might figure out how to decode or sound out words very quickly, but not understand or comprehend most of what they’re reading.
Unlike a child who is a gifted reader, a child with hyperlexia will have communication or speaking skills that are below their age level. Some kids even have hyperlexia in more than one language but have below average communication skills.
There are four main characteristics that most kids with hyperlexia will have. If your child doesn’t have these, they might not be hyperlexic.
- Signs of a developmental disorder. Despite being able to read well, hyperlexic kids will show signs of a developmental disorder, such as being unable to speak or communicate like other kids their age. They might also exhibit behavioral problems.
- Lower than normal understanding. Kids with hyperlexia have very high reading skills but lower than normal understanding and learning skills. They might find other tasks like putting together puzzles and figuring out toys and games a bit tricky.
- Ability to learn quickly. They’ll learn to read quickly without much teaching and sometimes even teach themselves how to read. A child might do this by repeating words he sees or hears over and over again.
- Affinity for books. Kids with hyperlexia will like books and other reading materials more than playing with other toys and games. They might even spell words out loud or in the air with their fingers. Along with being fascinated with words and letters, some kids also like numbers.
Hyperlexia is strongly linked to autism. A clinical review concluded that almost 84 percent of children with hyperlexia are on the autism spectrum. On the other hand, only about 6 to 14 percent of children with autism are estimated to have hyperlexia.
Most children with hyperlexia will show strong reading skills before the age of 5, when they are about 2 to 4 years old. Some kids with this condition begin reading when they are as young as 18 months!
Hyperlexia can be the opposite of dyslexia, a learning disability characterized by having difficulty reading and spelling.
However, unlike children with hyperlexia, dyslexic children can normally understand what they are reading and have good communication skills. In fact, adults and children with dyslexia are often able to understand and reason very well. They may also be fast thinkers and very creative.
Dyslexia is much more common than hyperlexia. One source estimates that about 20 percent of people in the United States have dyslexia. Eighty to 90 percent of all learning disabilities are classified as dyslexia.
Hyperlexia usually doesn’t occur on its own as a stand-alone condition. A child who is hyperlexic may also have other behavioral and learning issues. This condition is not easy to diagnose because it doesn’t go by the book.
Hyperlexia is not clearly defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for doctors in the United States. The DSM-5 lists hyperlexia as a part of autism.
There’s no specific test to diagnose it. Hyperlexia is normally diagnosed based on what symptoms and changes a child shows over time. Like any learning disorder, the sooner a child receives a diagnosis, the faster they’ll have their needs met to be able to learn better, their way.
Let your pediatrician know if you think your child has hyperlexia or any other developmental issues. A pediatrician or family doctor will need the help of other medical experts to diagnose hyperlexia. You’ll likely have to see a child psychologist, behavioral therapist, or speech therapist to find out for sure.
Your child might be given special tests that are used to find out their understanding of language. Some of these might involve playing with blocks or a puzzle and just having a conversation. Don’t worry — the tests are not difficult or scary. Your child might even have fun doing them!
Your doctor will also likely check your child’s hearing, vision, and reflexes. Sometimes hearing problems can prevent or delay speaking and communication skills. Other health professionals that help diagnose hyperlexia include occupational therapists, special education teachers, and social workers.
Treatment plans for hyperlexia and other learning disorders will be tailored to your child’s needs and learning style. No plan is the same. Some children may need help with learning for just a few years. Others need a treatment plan that extends into their adult years or indefinitely.
You’re a big part of your child’s treatment plan. As their parent, you’re the best person to help them communicate how they feel. Parents can often recognize what their child needs to learn new mental, emotional, and social skills.
Your child might need speech therapy, communication exercises, and lessons on how to understand what they’re reading, as well as extra help with practicing new speaking and communication skills. Once they begin school, they might need extra help in reading comprehension and other classes.
In the United States, individualized education programs (IEPs) are made for children as young as age 3 who would benefit from special attention in certain areas. A hyperlexic child will excel in reading but might need another way of learning other subjects and skills. For example, they might do better using technology or prefer writing in a notebook.
Therapy sessions with a child psychologist and occupational therapist might also help. Some children with hyperlexia also need medication. Talk to your pediatrician about what’s best for your child.
If your child is reading remarkably well at a young age, it doesn’t mean they have hyperlexia or are on the autism spectrum. Likewise, if your child is diagnosed with hyperlexia, it doesn’t mean they have autism. All children are wired differently and have varying learning speeds and styles.
Your child might have a unique way of learning and communicating. As with any learning disorder, it’s important to receive a diagnosis and begin a treatment plan as early as possible. With a plan in place for continued learning success, your child will have every opportunity to thrive.