Hyperlexia: the precocious ability to read words without prior training in learning to read, typically before the age of 5.

Definition by Norman E. Silberberg and Margaret C. Silberberg (1967)

My son is different.

El has just turned 3.5 and, like most children his age, he strives for independence, needs lots of cuddles, and wears his heart on his sleeve. Unlike most children his age, he can read.

At around 12 months old he developed an intense fascination with the ABC magnets on the fridge. By the time he was 16-months-old he knew all the upper and lower case letters, never once confusing b, d, p, or q. He was equally drawn to numbers; at 2-years-old, El was counting and sequencing numbers up from one to twenty.

Before he turned 3, El could read and spell multiple words and, at the time of writing this post, he was reading full sentences. He has never been taught how to do any of this. In fact, my passion for encouraging play meant that, for some time, I was seeking alternative ways to engage my son. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was El’s way of playing.

Emotional conflict

We were living in the Northern Japan Alps, when El’s developmental differences were becoming more apparent, so we were culturally, linguistically, and geographically isolated. This seclusion, combined with the intense love I have for my child, resulted in a profound emotional conflict.

Since his fixation with symbols began, I have been simultaneously amazed, baffled, scared, proud, and sad. Scared because I didn’t know if I would be able to support my son and had no idea where to turn. Sad because I had to let go of some of the expectations I’d built up around parenting. I know this sounds odd, but it’s true. I had been looking forward seeing El do some of the funny things other kids do: mixed up counting, pretend reading, and even playing with toys.


Needless to say, I was also intensely proud of him and loved that I was having to re-evaluate my concepts of play and early years development. I had long had a peripheral interest in neurodiversity so having a child who connected with the world differently was a joy. Although, during those early days, I felt both grief and excitement for our future together.

What a funny thing to worry about

El consistently takes my breath away, but when I first realized he was developing differently I worried too. What would his differences mean for him growing up? How could I better support him and what kind of support should I seek? I didn’t (and still don’t) want to change him, but I recognized that his atypical development might cause him some difficulties in the neurotypical world in which we live.

At that time, we were living in Japan, so cultural and linguistic differences also complicated our ability to access suitable support.

Bizarrely, one of my biggest struggles was that I believed I couldn’t talk about any of this in case it sounded like I was bragging; I mean, back then, our greatest concern was that our 2-year-old could read.

Seriously, who worries that their child can read too young?

Answer: Parents of children with hyperlexia.

What is Hyperlexia?

Hyperlexia is commonly described as follows:

  • A precocious ability to read, far above what would be expected at a child’s age

  • An intense fascination with letters or numbers

  • Unusual development of receptive and expressive language

If you are unfamiliar with hyperlexia, it may seem like a dream to have a child who can learn to read so easily. But there are obstacles that come from asynchronized learning. Some of the issues that affect/have affected my son include:

  • An obsession with numbers and letters that interferes with other forms of play

  • “Quirky” language development

    • pronoun reversal, “Mummy, carry you.”

    • difficulty answering Wh questions, such as: “What’s your name?” “How old are you?”

  • Self-stimulatory behavior (stimming): primarily spinning and utilization of peripheral vision

  • Anxiety about certain noises, environments, or even words

  • Difficulties with social play: although keen to play with other children, El is slightly disconnected from the games his peers play

In isolation, these issues are not insurmountable but together they indicate areas where intervention may be necessary. You may also recognize some of these challenges as key traits in Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC). My son has no diagnosis (yet). Nor has he been evaluated; however, since relocating from Japan, we have referrals in place.

Neurotypes and Neurodiversity

A collage depicting a young child playing with, and sequencing, numbers and letters.

El played with little else from age 1 up.

You may be wondering, how can I be so sure El is hyperlexic without any professional evaluation?

Because, by definition, hyperlexia is an ability to read way beyond what is typically expected of an age. Typically, children with hyperlexia can read at the age of three without any formal teaching. Some children display an intense fascination with letters and numbers, preferring to play with ABCs instead of other toys.

If you spend a day with El, there is no doubt he is hyperlexic. When playing with blocks, Playdoh, or even pipe cleaners he simply wants to create an alphabet!

Like other neurodiverse diagnoses, hyperlexia is complex, variable, and not fully understood. It can be a neurotype in its own right or it can co-exist with other neurotypes. Children with hyperlexia grow into hyperlexic adults. Their brain is wired in such a way that decoding text is simpler than decoding speech.

It is incredible to watch hyperlexia unfold; to see a child seemingly “know” skills that most people have to work hard to learn. To better support my son I read, study, educate, and advocate.



Three Types of Hyperlexia

To complicate things, hyperlexia is not a simple list of symptoms, behaviors, or unusual developmental advances and delays. In fact, current thinking indicates there are three types of hyperlexia:

Type One: Neurotypical Hyperlexia

The child displays an uncanny ability to read from a young age but is neurotypical in all other areas.

Type Two: Autistic Hyperlexia

The child displays an uncanny ability to read from a young age and is autistic.

Type Three: Non-Neurotypical Hyperlexia

The child displays an uncanny ability to read from a young age and displays some autistic traits that fade by the time the child reaches 6 years old. Children with type-three hyperlexia are frequently misdiagnosed; when they “grow out of” autism there is a lot of confusion and that can result in controversy and misinformation.

NOTE: A person is either autistic or not. Autism is a neurotype not a disorder to be ‘cured.’ Importantly, a person can be non-neurotypical and non-autistic. Yup, it is a labyrinth.

Let’s simplify: some FAQs

Is your son autistic?

Maybe. That is a professional diagnosis that may/may not come after our referrals come through.

Do you worry about him being autistic?

He is an incredible kid: happy, funny, kind, smart, and healthy. I wouldn’t change him for the world. So, no.

Is your son hyperlexic?

Yes. Not only can he read English books, he can also read two Japanese alphabets (ひらがな (hiragana) and カタカナ (katakana))!

Do you worry that your child is developing differently to his peers?

Yes, sometimes. But not because of who he is; rather I worry about who other people are. People can be cruel when faced with anything that is unfamiliar or different. I want to build up El’s emotional firewall so that he can be resilient, strong, and love his neurotype.

What do you mean by neurotype, and why is it important?

There are multiple neurotypes. Neurotypical people accept their neurotype and sometimes find other “types” alarming, fascinating, or “weird.” On the other hand, neurodivergent people often feel the need to appear “more normal” to avoid bullying, pass job interviews, and even to be accepted by their own families. This distinction automatically puts neurodivergent people at a disadvantage. I believe it is time this changed.

It is time to accept that different neurotypes are a natural part of human existence. One of the most important things my son has taught me is that different neurotypes are awesome; they are not to be pitied, ashamed of, worried about, or cured.

Hyperlexia sounds like a superpower because it is. And, guess what, other neurotypes are wonderful too.

Further Reading

When Babies Read: One of the most highly recommended books on hyperlexia. 

An oldie but a goody! Reading Too Soon is full of examples and practical suggestions. 



And Next Comes L – this was one of the first blogs I came across. It was also one of my first blog subscriptions. Tons of stories, ideas, and resources.

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