The Red-Light District

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What is Hyperlexia?

A brief description of hyperlexia

A couple of months ago, I was speaking with a friend of mine who was telling me about her nephew. Apparently, her 3-year-old nephew is fascinated with numbers and letters and can read single words. I was surprised that her nephew could read, and at first I thought that this child was a genius. Unfortunately, I was wrong. After a little while, my friend told me that her nephew had hyperlexia. I had never heard of this word before so I looked it up. I figured that if I hadn’t heard of hyperlexia before then others probably hadn’t heard of it, too; hence, the blog posting.

According to the Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics--arguably the definitive text on pediatrics—hyperlexia is the spontaneous and precocious development of reading skills in children who are aged between 2- and 5-years-old. Hyperlexia is typically associated with kids who have pervasive developmental disorders (like autism) or specific language impairment--although children with hyperlexia don’t have the social deficits or restricted or repetitive behaviors associated with autism, just the disordered language. (Of note, not all children who can read at a young age have hyperlexia or an associated developmental disorder.)

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Even though children with hyperlexia exhibit word-decoding skills that are advanced, they oftentimes have no comprehension of the words that they read. Instead their text comprehension skills are correlated with their oral comprehension skills. For example, a child with specific language impairment and hyperlexia may be able to read single words or match words to pictures but have no ability to comprehend these words.

I realize that posting a blog entry about hyperlexia, autism and so forth on the Psychology Today web site may exact fervent reader reaction; consequently, I want to qualify my description of hyperlexia by explicitly acknowledging that I derived this explanation of hyperlexia from Nelson’s. Furthermore, I’m neither a pediatrician, child psychiatrist nor psychologist—just a person who wanted to share what I learned about hyperlexia.

As always, reader comments and clarifications are welcome.

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Naveed Saleh, M.D., M.S., attained a medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and a master's degree in science journalism from Texas A&M.

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