1. Hyperlexia*: what is it?
Hyperlexia is a condition where a person – often a young child – has word-reading skills that are far above his or her reading comprehension skills, verbal functioning level, or general cognitive functioning (Grigorenko et al., 2003). In other words, it’s a condition where a person’s skill in decoding and sounding out single words far exceeds his/her ability to understand those words (e.g. Frith & Snowling, 1983).
In typically developing children, single-word reading and reading comprehension often develop together, although this is certainly not always the case (e.g. Oakhill et al., 2003).
2. When did people start talking about it?
Hyperlexia was first described in the 1960s (e.g. Niensted, 1968).
3. How does it start?
We don’t know.
Some researchers think that hyperlexia might occur at a young age as a result of deliberate and sometimes obsessive reading practice. For example there are anecdotes of some children:
- becoming compulsive readers at the expense of all other forms of communication (e.g. Elliot & Needleman, 1976);
- becoming very attached to particular alphabet or other books and reading them continuously every day;
- pulling their families around parking lots reading letters and numbers on number plates;
- having obsessive interests in letter and number blocks; and
- reading every bit of print they encounter in their environment (e.g. signs, notices, books and manuals).
Researchers looking at examples and parent reports like these hypothesise that this intensive practice with printed letters and words leads to a precocious ability to read single words (e.g. Newman et al., 2007.)
4. How do young children with hyperlexia read words so easily when they don’t understand what they are reading?
We don’t know.
We think children with hyperlexia are very good at decoding letters in words, translating them into speech sounds, and then blending them together. This suggests that children with hyperlexia read in the same way as typically developing older readers.
We don’t think hyperlexic children rely on visual memory or whole-word recognition (e.g. Aram & Healey, 1988). We know this from the evidence that children with hyperlexia are good at reading “nonwords” (e.g. like “mub” or “trup”, which obey the rules of English speech sound combinations but are not real words) (e.g. Newman et al., 2007).
5. How does hyperlexia relate to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
This is a controversial topic.
Researchers disagree with each other about whether hyperlexia is:
- specific to people with ASD (e.g. Newman et al., 2007);
- general to people with a lot of different conditions involving an intellectual disability (e.g. Temple & Carney, 1996); or
- occurs with people who are “neurotypical” (developing normally) (e.g. Nation, 1999) or even gifted (e.g. Pennington, 1987).
There is some evidence about people with high functioning ASD that suggests a general pattern of stronger word-reading skills in the presence of deficits in language comprehension and abstract reasoning (e.g. Minshew et al., 1990).
Newman and her colleagues (see citation below) see hyperlexia as ASD-specific. Some researchers even see hyperlexia as a possible red flag for ASD (e.g. Fisher et al., 1988).
6. Why does comprehension lag behind decoding ability in people with hyperlexia?
Many children with ASD experience oral language difficulties (e.g. Cain et al., 2004). Children with hyperlexia may experience problems with one or more higher level language skills (e.g. inferencing, integration, comprehension monitoring and knowledge of text structures). Sometimes it’s not clear if people with hyperlexia have problems connecting the words to knowledge or if they simply don’t have the knowledge to access (Snowling & Frith, 1986).
Some researchers speculate that the gap between decoding and comprehension reflects the general language abilities of people with ASD, in which mechanical skills (like sounding out letters and blending sounds to say words) exceed more abstract skills (e.g. Szatmari et al., 1990).
7. Is hyperlexia common?
No. Only a small percentage of people with ASD have the condition – estimated to be 5-10% (Burd & Kerbishian, 1985).
8. Is hyperlexia’s decoding advantage permanent?
We don’t think so. Limited evidence suggests that the effects of hyperlexia on young children “even out” by around the age of 10 years. In other words, on average, young children with hyperlexia do not end up reading better than other people with ASD (Goldberg, 1987). It also suggests that children with ASD but without hyperlexia tend to “catch up” to children with ASD and hyperlexia.
9. How can speech pathologists help children with hyperlexia?
Some people think hyperlexia can be used to help people with ASD to improve their skills with oral and written language (e.g. Newman et al., 2007). It might be possible to take advantage of an interest in decoding words to strengthen a person’s comprehension skills (semantic knowledge) that are lacking in both his/her oral and written language skills.
A good starting point is a comprehensive oral language assessment to identify oral language comprehension issues, which often underpin reading comprehension issues. A management plan can then be designed to help improve a client’s oral and reading comprehension skills to reduce the gap between a client’s good decoding skills and relatively poor comprehension skills. Parents and teachers can also help by increasing a child’s world knowledge.
- Language disorders in children
- 6 strategies to improve your child’s reading comprehension and how to put them into practice
- Are reading comprehension problems caused by oral language deficits?
- “Does dyslexia exist?”
Principal source: Newman, T., Macomber, D., Naples, A.J., Babitz, T., Volkmar, F. Grigorenko, E,L. (2007). Hyperlexia in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism Development Disorders, 37:760-774.
* “Hyperlexia” is a mash up of Greek words. In Greek:
- “hyper” means “over, beyond or above”; and
- “lexis” means word.
Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.
Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language
Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.