Does your Child have Hyperlexia, Autism, or Gestalt Language Processing? How to Know.

When your child is diagnosed with a specific learning disability, or you suspect a disability of some kind, many words are thrown at you.

Until you familiarize yourself with the various conditions, their symptoms, and their connection to each other, your child can be incorrectly categorized. Such as with hyperlexia, autism, and Gestalt Language Processing.

Hyperlexia

Many people are familiar with dyslexia. Now, let me introduce you to hyperlexia. And some other behaviors that often accompany autism and other learning disabilities.

Hyperlexia has been referred to as “reverse dyslexia.” The child is excellent at decoding but terrible at comprehension. Other entities refer to it as a “savant-like behavior.”

While many IEP teams may characterize these behaviors as just a ‘quirk,’ they often have their own name, list of symptoms, and specific interventions.

Many hyperlexic children are thought to be gifted and are extremely verbal.
Gifted? Savant? Or Hyperlexic?

What is Hyperlexia?


Many people have heard the term dyslexia, but hyperlexia is starting to get attention. Let’s start by breaking down the word hyperlexia.

Merriam-Webster is always a great place to start for definitions.

Begin with the prefix hyper, which means above or beyond.

And now add that -lexia, which comes from the Greek word lexis, or word or speech. Put it all together, and you’ve got a hyperinterest in words.

A child who learns words in chunks, rather than separately, may be hyperlexic.

A child that seems more interested than their peers or possibly overly interested in letters and words before and during acquiring speech and language recognition could possibly have hyperlexia.

For example, a child could be overly interested in letters, lining up letters and words but not fully grasping their meaning or utilizing them appropriately for receptive and expressive speech.

According to Science Direct: Hyperlexia is defined as the co-occurrence of advanced reading skills relative to comprehension skills or general intelligence, the early acquisition of reading skills without explicit teaching, and a strong orientation toward written material, generally in the context of a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Some kids with hyperlexia can read at 18 months of age. Kids with hyperlexia are often mistaken as gifted students.

Unlike a child who is a gifted reader, a child with hyperlexia will have communication or speaking skills that are below their age level. Some kids have hyperlexia in multiple languages but have below-average communication skills.

Hyperlexia was coined in 1967 and is typically characterized by four features. These include having advanced reading skills, learning to read early without being taught, having a strong preference for letters and books, and having an accompanying neurodevelopmental disorder.

What is Gestalt Language Processing?

Next, what is Gestalt? Gestalt is a term from the psychology world, “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.”

Gestalt processing is basically the “chunking” of information. The gestalt-processing child will understand language in chunks. They must be taught to break it down into individual words.

An example could be a child who sees a flower, and the parent says, “the flower is pretty.” When the child sees a flower, they will always say the full phrase, “the flower is pretty.”

It will take time to break down what a flower is; some are pretty, some are not, etc. A Gestalt language processor has difficulty separating out the words in a sentence.

Gestalt processors often use echolalia as their speech pattern. You can learn more about echolalia and scripting in that article.

Since their speech pattern is often mimicking rather than fully grasping the language, they are often perceived as having very “adult” speech skills. When in fact, their speech skills are often behind their age peers because they can only mimic or echo rather than create their own sentences.

The differences between hyperlexia and Gestalt language processors are subtle, and it takes a trained eye to see them in a child. This is why proper assessments and evaluations are critical.

As always, go with your gut, parents, and ask for an IEE if you disagree with the school district’s assessment of your child.

Gestalt Language Processing is characterized by having extreme difficulty understanding and processing verbal language and a tendency to focus on nonverbal communication when reading aloud.

These symptoms may be present in children with an ASD diagnosis or other neurological conditions such as epilepsy, brain tumor, Tourette syndrome, and more.

3 Types of Hyperlexia

Darold Treffert is one of the leading experts in this country for hyperlexia. He defines 3 kinds of Hyperlexia.

  • Hyperlexia 1 consists of bright, neurotypical children who read early. Watching a child read books out loud to his or her nursery school class is always quite startling. But eventually, most other children learn to read, so that gap disappears over time.
  • Hyperlexia 2 consists of children who do have an autistic disorder, and the fascination with letters and numbers very early as an infant is what is called a ‘splinter skill’ savant ability. These children also have massive memory for birthdates of family and friends, license plate numbers, geography, sports trivia, or verbatim movie recall, credits, and all, for example. The outcome depends on the severity of the autistic disorder.
  • Hyperlexia 3 consists of children who are likewise fascinated with letters and numbers. They may read all the names of items on the shelves in a supermarket or pharmacy. They have some ‘autistic-like’ symptoms, such as unusual sensory sensitivity, echolalia, stimming, and obsessive-compulsive or repetitive behaviors. But they lack the withdrawal often seen in autism spectrum disorder. They make eye contact and give and seek affection.

Hyperlexia and Autism

While not exclusive to autistics, many autistics are hyperlexic. A 2017 study says that of all hyperlexic children, 85% of them also have autism.

Ironically, this language processing disorder that is often highly indicative of autism is often the trait that prevents them from being seen as autistic.

Because hyperlexic children learn sentences easily, and often before they learn individual words, they are often highly verbal and speak more complex concepts than their age peers.

Reading comprehension disorders can manifest due to other factors in a child’s skills. The study then examines individuals with and without Autism and the prevalence of hyperlexia.

Research does show a higher incidence of hyperlexia in individuals with Autism. And, again,
individuals with hyperlexia are within a wide IQ range.

Autism and Gestalt Language Learners

It’s important to know the difference between autism and Gestalt, or gestalt language learners. With autism, there are specific symptoms that children display.

These symptoms may include difficulty with social communication, repetitive behaviors, and a lack of social reciprocity.

With gestalt language learners, it can be more difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of their condition because there are no definite signs.

Gestalt language learners often have difficulty reading comprehension but excel in math and other spatial tasks.

They tend to be able to process information visually through photographs or diagrams instead of text-based information or speech.

There is a lot of confusion around these two terms because they are not always interchangeable.

However, if you suspect that your child is struggling with learning disabilities, then it’s important for you to ask your pediatrician for the next steps, as well as ask your school district about IEP evaluations.

Hyperlexia is a specific language learning disorder that impacts children’s ability to learn and process language.

Hyperlexia differs from autism because it does not impact communication or social interaction but rather learning and processing language. While adults may see a lack of social interaction, this is due to language learning deficits and not social skill deficits. I hope that makes sense.

In other words, if you force a child to participate in forced social situations, you haven’t addressed the core problem. And that is, the child lacks the language skills to have meaningful social communication.

Symptoms of Hyperlexia

Hyperlexia by itself is not in the DSM. It is listed under autism as an autistic trait.

Some ways to tell if your child is a gestalt learner or has hyperlexia:

  • using the third person when speaking about themselves
  • using the same phrases over and over
  • Language learning is delayed because they are acquiring it differently
  • Some speech may be hard to understand because they are attempting to say full sentences or phrases at once

It is highly recommended that a certified speech-language therapist see the child for a full evaluation. It will be then that strategies can begin to be implemented for success.

Interventions for Hyperlexia

  • written schedules
  • written instructions
  • Mnemonics
  • social stories
  • Using pictures with words
  • Using what they excel in, their strengths, to build lacking skills

Early intervention is so important in finding the path to success for these amazing kids!

Hyperlexia, Autism, and Gestalt Language Processing

A child can have any of these, any two of these, or all of these. Having one does not guarantee or negate having the others.

And while closely related with many overlapping characteristics, you want to ensure you are targeting the right condition with the right interventions.

About the Author:

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Linda Gilmartin is a High school special education teacher, an adjunct college professor for future teachers, Administrator of the social media group Transitioning Teens/Adults with Special Needs Life After High School, and Author of Transitioning Special Needs Teenagers and Adults 

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