Have you ever thought about how our perceptions shape the way we see the world around us?
When I look at this picture, I see Mr. Potato Head’s eyes.
My son, however, sees an eight (8).
Do you see what he sees? When you turn Mr. Potato Head’s eyes sideways, they are shaped like the number eight (8).
And this next picture.
It’s a screenshot of my phone. We were playing a video and we paused it. Do you see the pause symbol on center of the screen? When I press pause, my son laughs and asks me why I am pressing the eleven (11) button. Have you ever noticed that the pause button looks like the number eleven (11)?
Or how about this straw we picked up on our Disney world vacation.
I thought the kids would love drinking out of this Mickey Mouse straw. And they did! My son especially loved it because Mom got him an eighty-six (86) straw!!!
My son sees numbers (and often letters) in everything. Because of his variations in how he experiences the world around him, I have come to appreciate the amazing differences we all have in how we make sense of our lives.
My son has hyperlexia.
Hyperlexia is defined loosely as the ability to read early. All cases are different, but my son started to read words when he was just 2 years old. As a baby, he loved to be read to. The only song that would make him stop crying was the alphabet song.
With hyperlexic children, the ability to read earlier than expected is also accompanied by an extreme interest in numbers and/or letters. As in the examples above, children with hyperlexia tend to “see” letters and numbers everywhere. They also tend to enjoy playing with letter/number toys. In our house, we keep an unending stock of number stickers around as my son enjoys applying numbers to many of his toys. We also have a ridiculous amount of posters scattered around our house; maps of the world, the periodic table, a hundreds chart, counting in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Polish. He wanted to learn to count in Russian, but I just could not figure that out!
Hyperlexia seems primarily like a positive label. What could be wrong with learning to read a little early and having a preference toward academic toys?
Well, I like to think of hyperlexic children’s natural abilities in terms of a see saw.
On one side, these children are seen as very bright; you can see how one side of the see saw would be weighed down. The other side, however, is light. This other side is the child’s social skills. Children with hyperlexia may have unusual social skills interactions and need extra coaching to interact appropriately with peers and adults. Their oral language is often a little bit different. For instance, a lot of my son’s early speech were actually verbatim lines from books.
In the social skills department, my son exhibits:
- Selective listening (he rarely answers someone who asks him a question, except for close family)
- A struggle to initiate social conversations
- A need for literal thinking (if I say to “jump out of the tub”, he will try to actually jump out)
- A strong need for routines and control
- Some sensory sensitivities, including serious fears that are overwhelming to him
So let me give you an example of this other side of the see saw. My son had to be taught how to give a hug. Sounds sort of unbelievable right…you just open your arms and hug, right? Just a few weeks ago, I gave my son a mini-lesson on the physical movements involved in hugging. Up until that point, he would just put his hands to his sides and “receive” a hug. Now he can open his arms wide and give a hug. And he is proud of it, too.
Unfortunately, there is very minimal research on hyperlexia. If you Google the term you will be directed to a few blog posts, as well as some literature by Dr. Darold Treffert. Dr. Treffert (2013) further breaks down hyperlexia into three types:
- Type I (neurotypical children who read early)
- Type II (children with autism spectrum disorder who read early)
- Type III ( children with some symptoms of autism who read early; these children tend to outgrow autism behaviors)
Not all the literature agrees with the three types. If my son were to be categorized, he would be Type III, and at four years old we are already starting to see his autistic-like behaviors diminish. I personally envision hyperlexia as a continuous spectrum, with children who have things in common, but who also are very unique themselves.
Finally, Hyperlexia is not a diagnosis in and of itself. At best, it is a label used as a means of helping your child succeed. Because it helps to know how your child sees the world, right? How can you guide them without knowing what they see when they are looking at the world around them.
Not all labels are positive, but we try to see the positive in everything around here. My son has hyperlexia, and we are having fun with it.