He just needs to be around more kids.
This is the well-meaning but insufficient advice I received from a friend this summer when I was discussing my preschooler’s struggle to interact and connect with his peers. Though exposure to other children in a variety of settings is important to social skills development in toddlers and preschoolers, his struggle was not due to insufficient time playing with other children; it stemmed from something deeper. And giving him more time to be with other children was not going to be the sole way to remedy his issues.
My preschooler has hyperlexia, a label used for children who read early and have an intense fascination with letters and numbers (see What is hyperlexia? ). If you are new to the term hyperlexia, you might be curious how a child reading earlier than his peers would have anything to do with a child’s social skills. But if you think of hyperlexia in terms of the social domain and not just the cognitive, you recognize that hyperlexia is also marked by a child’s inability to react to and with social stimuli.
What if we thought of hyperlexia as a social disability? With hyperlexia, children seem to becomes fascinated with letters, numbers, and other stable, non-changing “things.” Not only are they fascinated by these forms of print, but they excel at them. Aside from reading early, a young child may also become an expert on maps or the periodic table.
They often, however, struggle with the opposite: the abstract or ever-changing, elements of the social world. Think of how terrifically abstract and fluid a social situation can be. Social contact is entirely in variation, with conversations constantly fluctuating. Different responses, tone of voice, and body language are needed per specific interactions. It is easy to see how a child could struggle with misinterpretation of social stimuli.
Further, categorizing hyperlexia as a social disability may explain why some children seem to outgrow the label (specifically hyperlexia type III children. Read this for more information on what hyperlexia type III entails). As Grigorenko, Kline, and Volkmar (2003) state: “Helping a child learn how to manage social stimuli might dilute his obsession with printed stimuli” (p. 1987). Children may be able to overcome social deficits, and in doing so lessen the need for (but not entirely erase) their intense interests in letters and numbers.
How to encourage positive social skills in children with hyperlexia: Social skills are important, as they are not only important to overall social functioning, but to a student’s academic achievement in school, as well. As my preschooler grows, his social skills have been improving, but he still has challenges regarding everyday conversational skills. These social reciprocity skills are important; Struggles or impairment in social pragmatics can keep a child from making friends or participating in group activities. Children who struggle with social pragmatics, such as following the basic rules for having a conversation, may benefit from meeting with a speech and language pathologist. Check out ASHA’s (American Speech-Language Hearing Association) web site to learn more about pragmatics and for specific examples on how to improve this area of social speech: ASHA and Pragmatics.
Identifying social barriers: How does this social disability manifest in your child? Where is your child struggling? Observe your child’s attempt to interact with other children in variety of settings. What specific cues do they seem to be missing? My preschooler does not always recognize when peers are speaking to him. For instance, he recently began initiating conversations with peers (a huge social milestone in and of itself), to both peers that he does and doesn’t know. At soccer, he offers a high five to another child as they are waiting to play. In response the peer will high five him. A child next to him hears the exchange and offers a high five to my son. He seemingly ignores this other child and makes no response. From observations I also know that group situations with a lot of environmental stimuli (such as soccer) are always more difficult than quiet and focused one-on-one interactions.
So after observing problematic areas, brainstorm social interventions that are fun and unintrusive: If your child is already receiving speech services, then discuss ways you can work on social speech skills at home! Offer your input into the areas you believe your child is struggling.; Children definitely react to social stimuli differently depending on the situation.
Whether they are in speech or not, there are lots of things you can do at home to encourage positive social interactions. Brainstorm some strategies that work specifically for your child that matches their current need. Currently, we are encouraging social skills at home by playing games as a family (with work on turn taking), telling shared stories (we both take turns adding to the story), role playing social skills situations, and having conversations about social interactions at school.
Practice with peers: Make sure your child has time to interact with other children; practicing with peers is an important part of learning new social skills, especially for children with hyperlexia. Practice his newfound skills in a natural environment, such as at school or a playdate! Social skill instruction is wonderful, but children often have a difficult time moving to real life scenarios (and of course! Social skills treatments are way less variable than an ever-changing conversation on the playground).
This is why parent-teacher relationships are incredibly important; communication has to be both ways to ensure a successful social experience. In the classroom, the teacher can be your child’s “social guide” by helping your child find common ground with another child and helping to initiate some of the conversation. Over time, the teacher can back off as children become more confident at interacting together. At home, we talk about what children he talked to today at school or that he played with. We consider it a win if he tells us what another child was doing. It means that he is aware of the children and what they are doing and didn’t spend his time at school in isolation.
Finally, give it time. Since many children with hyperlexia speak late, their milestones regarding social skills may be lagging a bit, too. My preschooler seems to be achieving social milestones a few months to a year behind the curve since birth. But he is getting there!
Further, asynchrony, a term used in gifted education to describe a mismatch in development in gifted children, appears to be linked with hyperlexia, as well. According to the NAGC (The National Association for Gifted Children), a gifted child often excels in math or reading but has poor fine motor or social skills. In asynchronous development “advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm” (NAGC). Understanding the social differences of gifted children could prove useful in developing social skills instruction for children with hyperlexia, as well.
Hyperlexia manifests differently in different children, so the experiences in my household may vary greatly from that in yours. But by looking at hyperlexia as a social disability, we can come to explore and understand the underlying social struggles our children are facing and how they can possibly overcome them, as they relate to the cognitive superability that makes them so superbly unique.