Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hyperlexia Revisited - part 3: lost in books

This is the third in a series of posts where I attempt to provide a snap shot of hyperlexia beyond the "my toddler can read" stage. I want to describe some of the ways that hyperlexia might manifest in addition to early reading.

Previously, I wrote about how Ben's linguistic sophistication coexists with a lack of social sophistication. In other words: language is easy, conversation is hard.

I also wrote about
The joy of text: the fascinating ways that Ben's brain seemed specially tuned to language and text.

I remember being in a restaurant when Ben was about three years old. As we ate our meal, Ben sat at the table with a stack of books, content to read quietly. A mom at a nearby table, with a boy of similar age, looked over at him and said to me, "You're SO lucky! I wish mine would sit still like that!"

I acknowledged her comment with some humor, and managed to resist chirping back, "And I wish I could get mine to talk to me!"

Seeing a child engrossed in a book probably ranks second only to watching a child sleep when it comes to the Precious Moment Index, so it's difficult to describe how something that so many parents work very hard to promote, to cultivate, to make into a habit can be - at times - the source of a dilemma.

For Ben, books function a little like a transitional object. Typical transitional objects tend to be pacifiers or security blankets or a favorite, essential stuffed toy: things that offer comfort and reassurance. Individuals on the spectrum may not outgrow the need for a transitional object as they exit toddlerhood the way most children do.

Like other transitional objects, books seem to be healing, regulating, distracting, enveloping and calming.

But they also can be the source of perseveration.

When Ben is engrossed in a book, it's nearly impossible to get his attention by speaking to him. Sometimes even a tap on the shoulder will not be sufficient to break his concentration.

When I manage to get him to look up, he usually does for a moment, until his head is pulled downward again by what appears to be an invisible magnetic force that is beyond his control. It's not that he's ignoring me, it's like he's really trying to look at me but can't.

I gently try to lift his chin sometimes. Again, after a moment of eye contact, the force pushes against my fingers and pulls his eyes and face back to the book. It is not a stubborn act of rebellion or willfulness. It just seems he cannot stop his eyes from returning to the page.

Occasionally, when I try to gently shut the book, he forces it back open, pleading, "Wait, wait, wait, wait!" as if I'm taking away an oxygen machine.

The best way to get his attention when he's reading is for me to lean down and cover the entire page with my forearm or place another object over the page. Not subtle, but effective.

book nook.jpg

The real dilemma with the book-as-transtional-object situation is that books have become a survival tool rather than a choice.

Because reading is such a socially acceptable activity, I've been happy to let Ben use books to his heart's content to survive restaurant meals, our dinners with adult friends, and other social events that I know won't hold his attention for long. Our bags and backseats are stocked with books we can pull out to delay, distract and disarm whenever needed. They've made our life easier.

But probably as a result, Ben is barely able to sit at a meal without a book. He paces, he squirms, he asks to be excused as soon as he's had two or three bites of food.

Give him a book, on the other hand, and he'll happily sit through a long dinner and clean his plate.

I'm not making much headway with this because I tend to choose nutrition over therapy when dinnertime rolls around, but we have attempted a "no books for the first ten minutes of dinner" project with limited consistency and success.

Which makes me wonder if I'm equally dependent on books - on Ben using a book as a transitional object - as a way of easing the day-to-day, moment-to-moment difficulty and uncertainty.

When a child gives up the pacifier, isn't it really the parent and the child giving it up together?


What about you? Are you ever ambivalent about your hyperlexic child's dependence on books to get through or get out of certain situations? Would your child rather read than face the hostile environs of the dinner table? And how many books are in the backseat of your car right now?



Anonymous said...

Great post. I am curious about how many neurotypical children your son's age can make it through a boring activity [dinner with adults, etc.] without some kind of distraction — whether it's a book or a video game or whatever. I don't know the answer — I'm just wondering if some of the squirming and impatience isn't just typical kid behavior.

I really relate to the part about having to physically cover the page to get his attention. I often feel the same "invisible force" pulling my eyes back to a book or the computer screen when people try to talk to me when I'm reading, and sometimes I feel intense, irrational irritation at being interrupted. I have to shut the laptop or close the book in order to make eye contact and really engage in the conversation. I tell myself this is because my available time to read these days is so scant and precious, but I suspect this was true even before I had kids and had all the time in the world — I just never thought about it until I read this.

I don't worry too much about my son using books as a crutch. I do it myself when I'm in a situation that feels awkward [eating alone at a coffeeshop, waiting for the bus when I'm not in the mood to talk to anyone]. If there's an activity I really want/need him to engage in, then there are no books allowed, and I make an effort to involve him in the conversation. But at a boring adult social activity, reading a book seems like a useful adaptive behavior.

I have many happy childhood memories of sneaking away from adult dinners to read in a spare bedroom, and I don't see any reason to deny my son that pleasure.

Deirdre said...

I'm curious about how Ben reacts when you physically cover the page with something else. Does this effectively "change the channel"? or you get a blank stare? do you ever get anger? FYI, Ben did pretty well hanging out at dinner at our place when I told him he needed to be with us at the table for a certain number of minutes. (I don't know if I said ten, I can't recall.) Of course it helped that Liam was reinforcing everything I said. (Does Liam have a future career as the next Spiro Agnew?)

Scott, Bri, Elijah, Abigail said...

"When I manage to get him to look up, he usually does for a moment, until his head is pulled downward again by what appears to be an invisible magnetic force that is beyond his control"...... yep. I see that. everyday.

How many books are in the car? Hmm... what counts? Magazines, subscriptions, place mats, menus, workbooks, maps? I periodically clean them out only to replace them because HE never gets bored of the same thing, but I thought maybe he'd enjoy a new one. I might only carry 6 or 7 to the doctors office or for a car ride to Memaw's house.

Your posts are such a preview of the future for us. Thank you for writing and so eloquently. We are there with you. Sometimes I wonder if it is a disservice to allow him to have his 'crutch' and then I wonder what allowing him to do his favorite thing will turn into in the future....

It is fun to take a book out of his bed (he usually keeps about 5 Bibles for cross reference and maybe 4 or 5 others) and flip to any page and ask him what it said. He usually knows. I wonder what is in that child's brain that I don't know about. We will never know.

Anonymous said...

I definitely think books can be a transitional object for those on the spectrum. Last year my Aspie son needed dental work done under general anesthesia. It was done in the hospital in the same day surgery unit to be as safe as possible. Needless to say, the whole experienc was definitely anxiety-provoking for him. He got through it with his Animal Crossing Player's Guide. We took it out of his hands once he was asleep and gave it back to him in recovery! Looking through it seemed to calm him.

Anonymous said...

Great blog - my first time here.
My 10 yr old with ASD is reading through breakfast as i type next to her...and will have a book open next to her as she dresses for school, and so on. We do have rules about not reading while crossing streets, but she will try to read as she walks to school....and she gives up her snack time in school to read. Luckily, although her decoding outpaces her comprehension, both are far above grade level and her hyperlexia now serves her very well in academic mastery. Over time, she has been able to broaden her areas of interest and gain some social skills through reading about social situations/school situations. Her delayed echolalia is usually context appropriate, and it helps her figure out appropriate responses in social situations. Hang in there - and take tiny steps to move toward your (more socially acceptable) goals. it can happen!