What is Hyperlexia?

Caucasian father and son reading newspapers in bed
KidStock/Blend Images/Getty Images

What is Hyperlexia?

Hyperlexia is a syndrome characterized by an intense fascination with letters or numbers and an advanced reading ability. Hyperlexic children read at levels far beyond those of their age mates and often begin reading at very young ages, sometimes at age two.

This advanced reading ability is in contrast with difficulties understanding spoken language. Unlike other children, hyperlexic children don't learn language in the typical language learning progression of sounds to words to sentences, nor do they begin to develop a vocabulary starting with nouns, adding verbs and do on.

Instead, hyperlexic children memorize phrases, sentences or entire conversations. To express an idea, the children must be able to dissect what they have memorized to create original expressions.

Hyperlexic children have excellent visual and auditory memories, which means they easily remember what they see and hear. They use their memory to help them learn language. They will often exhibit echolalia, which is the repetition of phrases and sentences without understanding the meaning.

Given their difficulty with spoken language, hyperlexic children rarely initiate conversations.

Hyperlexia is considered to be part of the autism spectrum of disorders and like autistic children, children with hyperlexia have problems socializing and behaving appropriately. They also exhibit other characteristics of autism:

  • Self-stimulatory behavior
  • Ritualistic behavior
  • Concrete and literally thinking
  • Difficulty with abstract concepts
  • Normal development until 18-24 months, followed by regression
  • Need to keep routines
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another

Additional characteristics of autism include the following:

  • Sensitivity to sounds, smells, and touch
  • Unusual fears
  • Selective listening (may appear to be deaf)

Are All Early Readers Hyperlexic?


All early readers are most definitely not hyperlexic. Silberman and Silberman, who first used the term in their 1967 paper "Hyperlexia: Specific word recognition skills in young children," never seem to have considered early reading in gifted children. For example, in their 1968 follow-up article "Case Studies in Hyperlexia," they describe a continuum of reading ability with children who have disabilities such as dyslexia on one end, children with no reading problems in the middle, and at the other end are children who "are able to recognize words mechanically at a higher instructional level than indicated by their intellectual potential." Nowhere do they mention children who are intellectually advanced with advanced reading abilities.

Those who study hyperlexia today seem to be following the lead of Silberman and Silberman. Darold Treffert, for example, divides hyperlexia into three different types. It turns out that type III is not actually a form of autism. But he still considers it to be hyperlexia simply because it includes early reading.

Interestingly, his description of a type III hyperlexic child sounds pretty much like a gifted early reader:

"These children also read early, often show striking memorization abilities, and sometimes have precocious abilities in other areas as well. They may have 'autistic-like' behaviors for a period of time. For example, they may show unusual sensory sensitivity (to sounds or touch or taste)."

The problem with this analysis of hyperlexia is that it doesn't account for gifted readers -- even though it includes them in the description of a type of hyperlexia. It is just another way that normal gifted behavior becomes "pathologized."  That means that people are seeing a problem where no problem exists.

How Do You Know If Your Child Has Hyperlexia?

If your child is an early reader, you may wonder whether your child has hyperlexia. In fact, you may encounter people who tell you that you should seek help for your child to diagnose and treat this "condition." This is especially true if your child is also a late talker - and has those sensory sensitivities.

Unless your child is exhibiting other signs of autism, there is no reason to have him "treated." Remember, early reading alone is not a sign of hyperlexia. While hyperlexic children are fascinated by words and letters and do learn to read without instruction at very young ages, their comprehension does not usually match their ability to recognize words. They also exhibit problems with spoken language, often unable to put words together to express their ideas or understand the spoken language of others.

I understand the worry as I once worried that my little early reader had dyslexia. However, I did eventually realize that his comprehension of what he read was superb and he had no trouble with spoken language (once he started talking!). He also had no problems making eye contact nor did he show any signs of other social problems. If you are concerned about your child and want an evaluation, then be sure to find someone who understands gifted children to evaluate your child. That may be difficult, so at the very least, be prepared to discuss giftedness with the evaluator. If your child is, like mine, a gifted early reader, you may be told your child has Type III hyperlexia. But all that means is that he's a gifted early reader. He is not autistic, and therefore, no treatment is required. He's just a normal gifted kid.

Continue Reading