The Line Between Autism and Hyperlexia Type III: This is My Son

One of my favorite quotes comes from a novel by Janet Fitch:

“The hard things came easy. But the easy things he found impossibly hard.”

This is my son.

Teaching himself to read? Easy. Putting on his shoes. Impossibly hard. Naming the capitals of all 50 U.S states? Easy. Getting his hair washed? Impossibly hard. Counting by 1,000’s? Easy.   Sitting at the dinner table? Impossibly hard.

My son is hyperlexic. Though hyperlexia is often concurrent with Autism– a new literature review cited that 84% of current research links Autism and Hyperlexia– my son has not been diagnosed with Autism. As of this time, he falls into a very small group of a small group of children who hyperlexia expert Dr. Treffert would define as having Hyperlexia Type III.

Type III children may exhibit some Autism red flags, but these behaviors seem to diminish over time. (To read more of his work click here). It is unknown whether this is because children have developed coping behaviors to “fit in” more appropriately with adults and peers, if interventions aimed at socialization improvement have yielded positive results, or just that time has allowed the asyncronicities to level out. 

If you come across this post, it’s likely you have heard of hyperlexia (If you haven’t, head over to What is Hyperlexia?) and you might be curious about what Type III hyperlexia looks like. Your child may or may not be diagnosed with Autism at the present time, and you may feel unsure of the appropriateness of the diagnosis (Type III children don’t necessarily “fit” in terms of Autism characteristics and interventions). Children who seem to outgrow their Autism characteristics (children do not “outgrow” Autism) may in fact have Hyperlexia Type III. 

The following is a list I created of traits my son with hyperlexia type III possessed from birth to age 4.5. I included traits that are specific to hyperlexia, traits that are specific to Autism, as well as traits that are just part of his personality (as these are difficult to exclude). Sensory issues are included, as well (both sensory avoiding and seeking behaviors).

Hyperlexia Type III at 0-1 years:

  • Doesn’t use gestures to communicate (no pointing or waving); giggling is sporadic
  • Enjoys books and has long attention span  for reading
  • Calm and alert baby
  • Learned to walk at 8 months by toddling toward favorite books
  • Doesn’t crawl or pull himself to stand
  • Favorite song is the ABC song; preference towards alphabet toys and wheels

Hyperlexia Type III at 1-2 years:

  • Begins to use some gestures to communicate (learns to wave and hug through coaching, but waving is “off”, still doesn’t point)
  • By first birthday can say Mama and Dada
  • Rarely babbles until close to 2nd birthday
  • Does not show much interest in other toddlers or children
  • Loves books and will listen to fifty books a day
  • Fascination with letters and words
  • Loves to sing the ABC song
  • Points to the letter X on a barn door at 1.5 
  • Exceptional puzzle skills
  • Sensory issues include: dislikes sand or grass on feet, dislikes messy hands
  • Relative (who is a speech pathologist) suggests he might be hyperlexic

Hyperlexia Type III at 2-3 years old:

  • Speech skyrockets on second birthday, almost immediately begins speaking in full sentences
  • Leads to advanced verbal skills, thousands of words
  • Recites books by memory
  • Uses book phrases in daily speech
  • Hand flapping and tip toeing noted by pediatrician (but not enough to “worry”)
  • Continued disinterest in other toddlers, but will play with other children when in small groups
  • Excessive drooling
  • Seeks control and routine
  • Doesn’t focus on who is speaking
  • Cannot remove own clothing or feed himself
  • Fear of vacuum and toilets flushing
  • Reads sight words and signs
  • Spells first word, “excavator”
  • Enjoys word play in language, speaks in a British accent for fun 
  • Early fascination with numbers. Loves to count, especially big numbers, can count by 2’s, 5’s, 10’s, 50’s, 100’s, 1,000’s, etc.
  • Can spell numbers
  • Sensory issues include: notice and extreme dislike of shirt tags, will not do face painting

Type III Hyperlexia at 3-4 years old:

  • Reads books and unfamiliar sight words
  • Enjoys numbers and prefers number toys
  • Enjoys index and table of contents in books
  • Exceptional map skills
  • Teaches himself addition and subtraction
  • Literal thinking prevalent
  • Rarely initiates conversation
  • Struggles with empathy
  • Doesn’t usually respond to adults outside immediate family, selective listening; this is especially true in public situations where there is a lot of outside stimulation
  • Often doesn’t notice or “hear” other people until he is made aware of them
  • Begins to notice and enjoy other children; plays and has fun with other children
  • First half of the year struggled with running away
  • Can follow directions, does best when directions are written
  • Fear of certain seemingly harmless movie scenes; coping methods (sits on couch for vacuuming and wears ear muffs for public restrooming)
  • Sensory issues: must wear socks with shoes, will not wear a blindfold for preschool games, hugs other children at random when admidst a large group setting

Type III Hyperlexia at 4-5 years old:

  • Interests expand, though some interests are intense (See Passion or Obsession?)
  • Continued interest in books, but often enjoys reading books silently; Reading expands beyond extensive sight words, can utilize phonics, as well
  • Conversational skills improve; Begins initiating conversation and contributes in back and forth conversation
  • Interactions with peers improve, though still often participates in “parallel play” at school
  • Successful in a structured preschool environment
  • Selective listening improves dramatically
  • Can now answer wh- questions 
  • Still needs to be “taught” some social behaviors; benefits from social stories at school
  • Likes to “win”, be first in line, be in control of situations 
  • No sensory issues at present time

    As you can see, the prevalence of hyperlexic (and autistic red flag) behaviors is noted in the infant years though increased between the ages of two and three. At the time, we discussed our concerns with two separate pediatricians but were met with blank stares. Pediatricians rarely have knowledge of hyperlexia, and we were only introduced to the idea when a relative suggested it to us. These behaviors are also obvious between the ages of three to four, but in the months before my son’s fourth birthday is when he began first making tremendous strides.

    Since hyperlexia is not an official diagnosis, type III hyperlexia will often be ignored or misunderstood. Any interventions and accommodations, especially in terms of ensuring a successful school experience, will need to be promoted by the parent. We are fortunate this year at school that my son’s teacher is entirely on board with his diagnosis, and that has contributed to him having a very successful year so far. His teacher also wants to work with the special education coordinator and the principal to determine kindergarten placement for next year. His teacher had stated that even though he will not have an IEP for school, we can still advocate for an appropriate environment for our son (more structured classes, less down time, enrichment activities, etc.).

    This list of characteristics of a child with type III hyperlexia is a means to connect with other parents and professionals who may seek further knowledge of the characteristics of hyperlexia. Please feel free to leave a question in the comments section or to email me for further information. This list will be updated as my son grows (he is currently 4.5 years old). 

    15 Comments

    1. My son at age 3 would greet another child by pushing them over … and when I asked him to say sorry – he would SPELL it! My son is now 9 and most of the challenging behaviours are gone, though he wants a map of space for Christmas. He used the most recent holidays to learn Morse code and Greek!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lynette thanks for commenting…I love hearing about how older children are doing! My son does the pushing, as well, though currently hugging seems to be more of an issue. :-p Wonderful to hear that a lot of challenging behaviors have been eliminated, and that your son is doing so well. Yes, I think these kids definitely have a knack for teaching themselves a new language; we are seeing some of that already, too!

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    2. This is fascinating. I never knew what hyperlexia was until tonight. What an exceptional child! It’s almost like the brain only has so much room to process everything at once, so while some kids’s brains focus on social progress others focus on more “academic” progress. That’s great to read about his social progress at 4y!!

      Liked by 1 person

    3. This is SO similar to my son! He doesn’t have sensory issues or issues with empathy, but the rest of it is spot-on! He loves to spell and count and can read a ridiculous number of words. He’s 3.5. He does go to preschool and gets services for speech/social delays, and his teachers seem stumped by him and getting him to engage in group activities. He likes to be with the other kids but doesn’t quite “get” how to interact with them beyond hugging and petting them (can you tell he had only feline siblings until recently?) I’m so glad to have found Hyperlexia III to describe his quirks.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. Thanks for your post. My DD is 3 years old and read all her pet the cat stories by herself . always interested in reading whatever she sees . But she also babbling most of the time . She understands all commands but sometimes very stubborn to follow and choose to ignore. She also loves to be around the kids but do not know how to play with them.always wants to be engaged.

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    5. Hi, my son(1 yr 8 months) is very social when he is around known people, he seeks attention from every one in the family (for e.g. by calling them by their names and playing with them). He even has started liking to play peek a boo with unknown people when he is outside. He communicates with so many words. Sometimes uses two word phrases but what I am worried about is he intensely loves numbers (knows 1 to 10 and loves to recite them) and now Alphabets. He recites all the alphabets from A-Z almost all the time now. He recognises them all (but J,L,N,G,) he also knows basic shapes, basic colours, animal names and their voices. But his intense interest in alphabet worries me a lot. Whenever he sees any alphabet written anywhere he will surely recite all the alphabet for once at least. My question is does this qualifies for hyperlaxia??

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Diane! It does indeed sound like your son has Hyperlexia. The fascination with letters and numbers was one of the defining factors for us at that age. Fortunately, my son’s interests have expanded beyond that (though at 4.5 he still does love some of the typical hyperlexia interests – flags, geography, the periodic table, etc.). I would recommend visiting the Hyperlexia Parents Network on Facebook. They are a great resource for new parents learning about hyperlexia, and it really helps to talk with other parents who are experiencing similar issues. Also, feel free to email me with any questions you may have: unrewardedgeniuses@hotmail.com.

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        1. Hi Diane, some children with hyperlexia do benefit from therapy (typically speech and/or occupational therapy). My son has not yet needed any, but this is case by case specific. It depends on if they are struggling in any areas developmentally. I would bring up any concerns with your pediatrician and they will be able to give you a referral for an evaluation. You can also contact early intervention in your area if you are in the United States.

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    6. Hi, my son just turned 4 and he fits in almost all the behaviours that you have mentioned year by year. We have come across the word Hyperlexia III in the internet when we were extremely worried that if his symptoms are of Autism. As you said his worrysome behaviors have already started to fade out, and we are very happy to see that change every day. But right now our biggest concern is that he tends to use his hands on other kids when he gets restless or nervous, so he gets timeout from his teacher at preschool almost everyday. Any suggestions or tips for this would be great appreciated. Thanks in advance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Preetha! I am glad you discovered HL3! Finding out what triggers his behaviors is so important. You said that he is physical when he is restless or nervous. What specifically is causing this behavior? We have had a very similar issue this year at preschool, and it was discovered that boredom was the main culprit. That is something we are still working on, but my son’s teacher has discovered that it helps when he is given more choices (for ex. he will get three choices and one will be time out)…this has been keeping my son out of time out, since he dislikes it so much! It encourages him to cooperate and to keep his hands to himself.

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