Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hyperlexia Revisited - part 1: Language is easy, conversation is hard

Since I started writing about Ben, I've been fortunate that so many parents have reached out and shared their own stories with me. Many stories follow a now-familiar pattern: our toddler was reading and we assumed he was gifted, but then he went to preschool and they told us he was autistic.

Though the word "hyperlexia" suggests the condition is simply an overabundance of ability, there's a bit more to it than that.

In reality, it means that a normal ability - reading - develops before the necessary cognitive foundation for reading is laid: the ability to make meaning, to understand context and perspective, to use language to communicate. And the absence or delayed development of these abilities is part of what distinguishes the autistic brain.

Which is one reason why most hyperlexic kids hang out somewhere on the autism spectrum.

So sometimes it feels like hyperlexia is a really delicious entree that comes with a side dish you didn't order. And you can't tell the kitchen to hold the side dish, and there are no substitutions.

I've been revisiting these ideas about the nature of hyperlexia recently for a couple reasons. One is that I recently read an excellent piece by lingusit Aya Katz that gives one of the best explanations of hyperlexia I've come across.

And Ben started first grade.

In first grade, it's not unusual to find your garden-variety socially-typical early readers. What will it mean for Ben to be hyperlexic when his ability to read is no longer a difference? And what happens now that Ben's reading comprehension has caught up with his reading ability?*

Does hyperlexia simply go away or become absorbed into an autism spectrum condition?

I'm going to attempt a series of posts that capture a bit about what hyperlexia looks like now, at six going on seven, because I think it continues to shape how Ben thinks and learns and interacts with the world in unique ways that go beyond the usual "early reading" definition.

Part 1: Linguistic sophistication without social sophistication

If language were music, Ben would be a music theorist, not a performer.

He seems to have a natural sense of the structure of language, the rules, the variations and patterns. He loves language as a thing unto itself, not necessarily as a means to an end.

He recently read a book to me and changed every verb from present to past tense without a single error. "I'm not going to say the Ss," he announced before starting. "I'm just going to say what people did." I remember that he did this once before. When he was 3.

He correctly uses advanced grammatical constructions like "neither/nor" in a sentence. He stops himself and restarts a sentence again and again until he knows he has the grammar just right.

But ask him a simple question: Ben, do you want a banana in your lunchbox today? And more often than not, I get a blank stare until I ask the question several more times.

He's great a greetings and conversation openers because those can be learned, memorized, but like anyone learning a foreign language, once the other person starts talking, pat words and phrases won't help: you need to think on your feet and invent language in the moment, make assumptions, inferences, know which of the 5 different meanings the speaker is using and respond all without missing a beat.

It's really a wonder that any of us can carry on a conversation.

I've started a game at dinner where we each have a pile of pennies and we put them in a dish each time we take conversational turn. When all the pennies are gone, he can bring a book to the table. It went well for the first couple nights.

But tonight he dumped all his pennies in the bowl at once and announced, "I'll just say a bunch of boring junk sentences."

Language is easy. Conversation is hard.

___________

*A significant gap between decoding ability and reading comprehension is one of the primary diagnostic criteria for hyperlexia.