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By Alexia Ostrolenk, Ph.D. student at The University of Montreal
This study is about hyperlexia and autism. Hyperlexic children are fascinated by words and letters. They learn to read extraordinarily early in the absence of any explicit teaching, but their reading comprehension is behind. We started noticing these children amongst the families visiting our autism evaluation clinic and decided to make a literature review on this topic since the last one was done more than 15 years ago and there was a lot of new articles published since. We were curious about the existence of a link between hyperlexia and autism, and the possible neurocognitive explanations for this.
We found that there is a strong co-occurrence between autism and hyperlexia, with 84% of published hyperlexic cases on the autistic spectrum, and 6 to 21% autistic children presenting a hyperlexic profile. We realized that hyperlexia, once considered a rarity, was actually common in the autistic population. Most importantly, almost all of these children started reading before the age of 5, and before they started speaking. In other words, their developmental milestones are not in the order expected for typical children, since they read before they speak. We found no evidence that this prevents language acquisition or comprehension in the future.
These findings show that some autistic children follow a different developmental pathway towards language acquisition. They also show that autism is not only made of deficits, but exceptional strengths that should be recognized and encouraged. Research on hyperlexia could have a major impact on how autistic children are perceived by society through a shift in developmental expectations and intervention targets. Supporting the recommendations given in Dr Mottron’s article entitled "Should we change targets and methods of early intervention in autism, in favor of a strengths-based education?", this suggests that strong skills and interests such as hyperlexia should be at the center of intervention strategies, as they could be used to favour the development of other skills, such as oral language. We aim to bridge the research-practice gap so that the findings from autism research on the cognitive particularities and learning processes of this population can be used to guide clinical practice.
Future studies should investigate the most effective strategies for strengths-based intervention in autism. Moreover, we would like to learn more about the neural basis of hyperlexia and further the exploration of this ability with cognitive and brain imaging studies.
Ostrolenk, A., Forgeot d’Arc, B., Jelenic, P., Samson, F., Mottron, L., 2017. Hyperlexia: systematic review, neurocognitive modelling, and outcome. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.04.029
Mottron, L., 2017. Should we change targets and methods of early intervention in autism, in favor of a strengths-based education? Eur. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry. doi:10.1007/s00787-017-0955-5
Group website: http://www.autismresearchgroupmontreal.ca/
Alexia's LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexia-ostrolenk-41423686
Alexia's ResearchGate page: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Alexia_Ostrolenk