Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Combating Hyperlexia

Like a certain percentage of autistic kids, I learned to read well before kindergarten. I was around three, and of course I had a particular book I liked and insisted on hearing every night and it happened also to be a book about a piglet who insisted upon the same food over and over again. Donuts were the culprit in Betty Engebretson's What Happened to George. An unhappy ending ensued when he ate so many he burst or "popped" as my mother preferred to say, and consequently vanished. Though I cried every single time he popped, the story remained my favorite and the mystery of the text alongside the pictures demanded solving.

Following along with my mom, I was soon able to recognize the words, and tell the story exactly as she had. This was not reading, she insisted, though I had no problem identifying each word individually and in any order presented. When my father got wind of this development, he resolved to put an end to the ridiculous idea that I could read. This he did by placing a newspaper in front of his three year old daughter and asking for a report on state and local politics. When I could not deliver on this request, his theory was "proven"--I wasn't reading at all, but merely memorizing words. Along with their meanings, pronunciation and spelling. Real reading was something else.

The logic of this strikes me as frighteningly similar to that of certain cure fanatics who insist that only the most extreme (in their view) forms of autism count as "the real thing". This is a black and white worldview in which something either is or is not and the only operational definition applied is the one already assumed to be optimal. By this reasoning, recognizing words and their meanings and being able to paraphrase is not reading, and people who can talk (or drive, or hold a job, or have a relationship, or whatever they want to insert here) are necessarily not autistic. It's all very much based on what someone (with little or no authority to do so) arbitrarily decides should be the definition.

Ignoring the reality of a continuum upon which many many points are reasonably defined as autism, they use their chosen definition to defend the need to cure these more disabled "creatures". Their autism is not my autism. How could it be when I am able to attend college? How dare I claim I could read at three, without knowing words like legislature and referendum?Therefore, since I am not autistic, I should probably shut up about autism not being a disease and so not needing a cure. Yet the people who say this are openly and happily non-autistic. Shouldn't they also, by their own logic...

But no, that assumes that what we are talking about is logical Which it is not.

After the newspaper incident, I read more discreetly. I would sneak books into my room to look at away from the eyes of my skeptical parents, learning more and more words and their meanings and nuances daily until eventually everyone had to admit that I could read. When I started school and did my best to coach the others along as they struggled with Dick and Jane, I suddenly became a very bright little girl. I was five then, so it was okay. Look how quickly she has learned, said the parents and the teachers and they were all so proud they could have burst (or popped, if you prefer). See Bev. See Bev Read! As I was no longer three, the definition fit.


  1. I'm hyperlexic too. I begged my parents to teach me to read when I was only three. They refused when the school system said that teaching a child so young to read was "bad for them" and would ruin the child. Post Montessori that sounds ridiculous, but back in 1959 that was the standard educational "wisdom."

  2. -and little baby Sally. And run Spot run!

    At times I recall being put on display before guests: "What does that sign say?", "read that" lol

    And, my brother, he was like a human GPS. He would memorize all directions and landscapes to the "T"! At an extremely early age. One would never get lost with him in the car. It was incredible!

    My brother and I manifest our traits differently.


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