I recently learned the word “hyperlexia”, which is “when a child starts reading early and surprisingly beyond their expected ability.” The second type of hyperlexia is highly associated with autism; while only about 10% of Autistics are hyperlexic, about six out of seven Hyperlexics are autistic. (Source: WebMD)
At 54, it’s hard to definitively diagnose myself as being hyperlexic, but I was definitely advanced for my age.
My father used to talk about how my parents tried to keep my from reading before I got to school.
It starts with this story: My older brother, born three years before me, was going to be held back in Kindergarten. The teacher’s reason was that he had trouble staying focused, especially during reading time.
My father said it was because he wasn’t interested in the stories, having already read them. The teacher would let the students look at the book before she read it, and he would read it to himself.
In my father’s version of the story, each child was given a copy of the book to take home to get familiar with the pictures. That part of the story strikes me as strange, but possible. My own memory of having books read to us in elementary school is that there was a single copy of the book, not enough for the entire class, but it’s been a long time.
Anyway, however it happened, the argument was that my brother wasn’t paying attention during reading time, and the teacher didn’t believe it was because he could already read.
So near the end of my brother’s Kindergarten year, my father had a meeting with the teacher, during which my brother proved that he could read by reading a book that had just arrived from the publisher.
Allegedly afraid that I would experience the same issue, my parents refused to let me see the page while they read books to me. Nonetheless, I was also able to read when I entered Kindergarten.
My parents blamed my brother, and said he’d taught me to read. That’s possible, but hyperlexia could also have been a factor.
I remember in Kindergarten, sitting on a piano bench during naptime, reading to the other children. My father insists this never happened, but I don’t know how he could know. He wasn’t there, I was. (It may have been in daycare, I suppose, but I know it happened.)
Regardless, at that time (1973), most people thought that typical children entering Kindergarten weren’t capable of reading. These days, it seems to be an expectation that they can, at least for many schools, but back then, it was seen as an aberration. Even a party trick.
After only a few weeks, I was transferred into first grade.
Rewind: Another story my father used to tell involved my “first words”.
I lost my eye when I was just over a year old. According to my ocularist’s records, I got my first prosthetic eye when I was sixteen months old, so I had to have lost my real eye not long before that.
I was late to speaking. My father blamed the trauma of losing my eye: I had been progressing normally on language development, but I stopped after my surgery.
Months passed and my family tolerated my grunts and pointing. One day, the story goes, my father got sick of it. I pointed at the ketchup, and my father said I couldn’t have it unless I used my words. I grunted and pointed a few more times, then finally relented with, “Please pass the ketchup.”
Many of my father’s stories have a Big Fish taint to them, with an underlying element of truth. Even so, they had a remarkable consistency to them, right down to it always being ketchup that I was asking for, so either it was true or my father was just a consistent liar.
Late speech development is a common-not-universal trait of Autistics.
I wanted to be a writer from a young age. I remember that I was going to write a story called “The Mysterious Monster”, but I didn’t know how to spell, and I gave my father a sheet of paper with the title written on it. He looked awkwardly at it, then asked me what it was about.
I told him, and he laughed in that way that parents laugh condescendingly at children, thinking the child won’t remember or will laugh along, that Art Linkletter “Kids Say The Darnedest Things” laugh.
I’d written “The Mistress Monster”.
After my father gave the paper back, I hid it or threw it out and never pursued that story. And I still remember that laugh.
When I was in the upper grades of elementary school, I was in a spelling bee. I was one of the representatives of my school. We drilled spelling words over and over, and I was caught up on “lavatory”, which I insisted on spelling to match “laboratory”, that is, as “lavoratory”. Or maybe it was the other way around; I don’t remember for sure.
Regardless, the word I consistently confused with the other one was the word I got in the spelling bee. I got it wrong. My father scolded me because we had practiced over and over, and I still got it wrong.
A few years later (this was in Berkley; the spelling bee was in Marine City), my father asked me how to spell “hors d’oeuvres” because he couldn’t find it in the dictionary and he was writing up a menu for the church. I guessed, but I didn’t know about the “h” so I didn’t get it right.
He did figure it out eventually; his secretary managed to find it in print somewhere, I think. This was before the internet, so there was no way to just Google it.
I felt like I’d let him down.
This memory is from Kindergarten or so, I think. Maybe second grade. I was being tested for my intelligence because I was overachieving in school.
It’s strange to read that WebMD website I linked before, acting like hyperlexia in itself is something to be “fixed”. That reinforces how much Autism is pathologized: Reading “too early”, having “too large” of a vocabulary, is seen as something that needs fixing.
Anyway, I had an IQ test. My father said I scored a 165 or a 185, I forget which. The only part of the test that I remember is reading words from a list, with the instruction that I should stop when I didn’t recognize one. The examiner had to skip a few pages because I just scanned quickly through the first one she showed me.
So much has been written on the education system continues to struggle with the proper treatment of students who “overachieve” in schools. Maybe at some point I’ll write something more focused about my own experience as a “gifted” child, but it’s tangential to this.
A memory from around twelve years old: I’m in the car with my mother, the front seat. I think we were going to my therapy, and I’m reading a book. I ask her what the word “eh-pee-tohm” means, so she has me spell it. I do, and she says it’s “epitome”, and proceeds to define it.
It’s the clearest memory I have of having seen a word but not knowing how to pronounce it, while at the same time knowing a word but not knowing how to spell it.
That and “The Mistress Monster” occupy adjacent spaces in my memory, even though they happened years apart.
A memory from high school: My English teacher and I are discussing some student-written poems. One, written by a student whose name I remember but won’t share, is called “Hyperbole”, which is a word I don’t know but which reminds me of a word I do know, “Hyperbola”. So I’m confused, because the poem is about a squirrel and has nothing to do with mathematics.
I suppose the point of these memories is that, as advanced as my reading skills were at a young age, I had gaps. English is a robust language, gaps are not surprising. I know there are words that other people see as quotidian but which I’m unfamiliar with.
(Yes, that was a joke. Autistic humor.)
Also interesting, though, is how my brain has clung to the memories of “words I didn’t know” as moments of personal shame, like I felt like I was expected to have known them.
Okay, so, yeah, that’s the bit about being labelled “gifted” that I wasn’t going to go into, but I’ve changed my mind. It’s the Platonic expectation that all learning is remembering, and that gifted children already know everything about whatever it is they’re gifted at.
The autistic tendency to infodump certainly doesn’t help with that.
Another memory, this one as an adult and the owner of an MA in Linguistics: My father tells me that Korean is written in Chinese characters, and that he knows this because he spoke to a Korean person, and so I better not argue with him about it.
It isn’t true, at least not as stated. Korean is written in its own writing system, a phoneme-based one like most of the world’s writing systems, not an ideographic one like Chinese. It’s true that Korean contains occasional Chinese symbols, but they’re hardly the bulk of the writing system.
It seemed, and seems, strange that my father was so adamant that I not correct him. I imagine part of it is my tendency to infodump, which has been taken throughout my life as being a Know-It-All.
But there’s no such thing as someone who truly knows it all. For instance, while I know the basics of the Korean writing system (as well as many others), I don’t know the basics of every writing system in current use, let alone that’s ever been used. And I don’t know how to read Korean, I just have a general sense that it’s written in syllabic clusters of phonemic marks.
Relevant point being: Once I was identified as being “gifted” and having a “large vocabulary”, the expectation was that I’d simply know how to spell any random word, and so it was a point of shame for me when I didn’t. Those are the memories that stuck with me, not the ones where someone asked me to spell a word and I did so correctly.
For instance, I know that someone who tries hard is a “trouper” and not a “trooper”, and that people get their “just deserts”, not their “just desserts”, and that people have “piques” of anger, not “peaks” or “peeks”. I find it interesting that playwrights can copyright plays they write.
I struggle with keeping my displays of knowledge like this somewhat suppressed, because I don’t want people thinking I’m trying to shame them. I just happen to know the prescriptive spelling of a lot of words, including many confused ones.
I did spend a lot of my life sneering at people who made mistakes, like using “they’re” when they mean “their”, and sometimes I do still slip and wind up joking about that. Yes, spelling is important; yes, vocabulary is important. But if I know what someone means, maybe I can keep the need to be “correct” to myself.
And all this aside, there are still words that I don’t know. I’m currently reading a book that uses the word “absquatulate” to illustrate how to teach new vocabulary. It was effective for me: I certainly don’t recall having encountered the word before. (It means “leave in a hurry”.)
This expectation got in my way earlier in my life: Just as being seen as a math genius kept me from challenging myself more in mathematics (lest I hit walls and prove myself human), I also avoided reading books that were too far outside my comfort zone.
A mitigating issue: I’m a slow reader. I can read complex texts, but I do so at a snail’s pace. This is another common trait of Autistics, particularly AuDHDs (which I may also be). The expectation was that, as an early reader with a large vocabulary, I would quickly devour anything I encountered. But the reality is that I struggle with longer texts, both because of attention issues (I’ve stopped writing this several times mid-sentence to go look something up and found myself back on social media, vapidly scrolling) and because of a need to read every word, even the ones I’m not familiar with (and if too many clutter up my working memory, I get frustrated and give up).
So this all gets into the issue of proper support of “gifted children”. I may be both hyperlexic and hypercalculic, a rare combination. Research by Wei et al suggests that hypercalculia occurs twice as often in Autistics as hyperlexia, but I wonder how much of that is because the mathematical Savant stereotype of autism leads to a higher rate of diagnosis.
“Gifted children” receive a persistent message that they’re expected to excel, which can lead to feelings of shame when we struggle with some aspect. This is a threat to our identity: A “mathematical genius” isn’t supposed to struggle with math; a “lexical genius” isn’t supposed to struggle with reading.
So when I did, I was embarrassed (at 54, I still misspell “embarrass” on my first attempt, and that’s okay) and avoided disclosing that. In more extreme situations, I avoided topics entirely. My biggest mistakes in mathematics are consistently when I’m rushing to show off how “smart” I am, something I know objectively is silly but which years of training programmed me to believe.
This has now gone on longer than I expected or initially planned, and morning has progressed into afternoon, so I think it’s time for me to self-defenestrate. Pardon my absquatulation.
Brennan, D. (reviewer). (2021) “What is Hyperlexia?” Accessed via WebMD 1/4/23
Wei, X.; Christiano, E.; Yu, J.; Wagner, M.; and Spiker, D. (2015) “Reading and math achievement profiles and longitudinal growth trajectories of children with an autism spectrum disorder”, Autism 19:2, accessed via Sage Journals 1/4/23