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.


Sarah (Kitaiska Sandwich) said...

Thanks for this post and the link to the article. It's been hard to find good information online about Hyperlexia, and this is one of the best articles I've seen so far. My son is almost three, and I love reading your blog because it feels like a sneak preview of what he might look like in a couple years. I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

Niksmom said...

Your posts about Ben's h/l fascinate me. You are the first person to give me a clear and simple understanding of h/l; I always thought it was something else and didn't understand why it could be problematic.

Since Nik can't talk, I don't know if he can read. I suspect he cannot simply bc of his vision issues. Still, you've given so much food for thought and linked to a most excellent article. Thanks!

TC said...

What fascinates me is how these same sorts of issues can manifest in such utterly different ways. N--in fourth grade and almost 10--still struggles mightily with reading, and I say that it's because of his problems with pragmatic language...he can't decode words he doesn't already know, because he has absolutely no idea what would be the 'right' word in the sentence he's reading, so there's no narrowing things down for him. Writing is difficult for him, too, because he seems literally incapable of knowing when a sentence makes sense and when it's not even close.

And yes, often if you ask him a simple question, he freezes up entirely...

A little boy just 3 years old said...

Ahh.. the question you pose at the beginning of this post.... something I often wonder in my mind, but never have I wondered it outloud. Thank you. It gets so confusing. We have these weeks, days where things are so 'normal' around here... but then again.. it doesn't usually stay.

Anonymous said...

hyperlexia is uncommon but plenty of kids have it. tend to have above average IQs. this is a gift. leave these kids alone and enjoy them. stop labelling them or theyll grow up with a complex

Kara said...

I know I'm coming 4 years late to the party, but we've just begun to suspect hyperlexia is the answer to all our questions about our son (who will be 3 next week). He had almost no expressive language until the last 2 months. It began when he started spelling words with his magnetic letters on the refrigerator! He couldn't say "dog", but he would spell "d-o-g" on the fridge, then run and get his toy dog. Now, he is spelling/reading many words, and attempting to say more and more of them. Last week, for the first time, he came home from child care singing a song they sing each morning. We were shocked! He will repeat his favorite phrases over and over again. And he seems to delight in words that are very similar, like "chair" and "Charlie" (his name). It's fascinating to read about your Ben (and I've been reading through a LOT of your blog the past few days), and to wonder how much Charlie might resemble him in the coming years. I appreciate you sharing your (and his) stories.

Anonymous said...

Can you re-post a link to the article? I can't seem to make it work or to find it in other places on the internet. Thanks!!

Christa said...

Sorry that the link is broken. Since this post is several years old, it may be that the author has taken down the original.