Judging a Book...
"Maybe he's just gifted" was what I heard from well-known reading specialist, psychologist, and author. I had an opportunity to speak with him after he had presented at a conference. I had shown him a couple of videos of my son, one of him reading questions from a math workbook and answering, and the other of him building Snap Circuits from an instruction book. Both of the videos had been taken just after he had turned four.
While I didn't disagree that my son is "gifted", the response hit me in the same funny way way as the response I had heard a year and a half earlier when sitting at a table with Board Certified Behavior Analyst (Autism Specialist). She made several statements that were far from "Maybe he's just gifted". She said, "so when are you going to get an autism diagnosis?", and "He's VERY hyperlexic" (meaning obsessed with letters/splinter skill), and "He doesn't generalize what he learns". Mind you that this specialist, while leading a team, had never actually worked with my son, and was going by a script and a vague set of test scores.
Between those two events, my son had, in fact, been evaluated by the school district and given an autism diagnosis. He had had speech therapy both privately and through the district. Even with that, neither take on my son's abilities was an accurate understanding of him.
The reading expert, who saw a few videos and stated that he thought my son was "just gifted" had not, in fact, observed my son over time, saw the lack of early babbling, the work it took for him to express himself, and observed his difficulty with word retrieval, not being able to recall words that had easily popped out of his mouth just 2-3 minutes earlier. He had not seen the days my son had sat by himself reading books in preschool instead of playing with friends. AND he had not seen how much my son loves letters even past the point of complete and total mastery of all things alphabet.
My son did not fit his definition of "hyperlexic" because, as he had stated in his presentation, he had seen kids with severe language delays who were hyperlexic.
The autism expert, however, did not see how he danced around excitedly when my husband picked him up for preschool, how he greeted me with "mommy" when I came to the door. She had not witnessed him learning a new fact or idea and never having to be reminded of it again. AND she did not know how deeply, in fact, he comprehended the words that he read.
My son did not fit her definition of "gifted" because her experience had been primarily with kids with autism.
Every professional, therapist, or teacher, views clients/students through a lens built upon experiences they have had with prior clients and students. This experience base can be good in that with every individual that someone works with is more experience is gained, and provides more tools that can be added to a therapist/teacher's toolbox. The danger, however, is that no therapist, professional, or teacher has seen a child in all settings and over the full length of time.
It's not just about "Judging a book by it's cover", it's about judging a book by your own lens of background and understanding.
This is why parent advocacy and teaching is so very important. Whether gifted, or hyperlexic, both, or neurodiverse in some other way, a parent is uniquely equipped to take what they hear from all professionals, teachers, and therapists, and filter out what applies appropriately and what is just false perception.
Not long after the famous reading specialist stated "maybe he's just gifted", my son was evaluated and found to be incredibly gifted, particularly in visual-spatial reasoning, and fluid reasoning. Does that rule out hyperlexia? Not in the least. His history of struggles with language, and absolute LOVE of anything alphabet attests to that. He is not JUST gifted, but he is not JUST on the autism spectrum either, he is him, a letter loving, Lego playing, science exploring, fun-loving kid.
"He can read well, but he just 'word calls'. He doesn't understand what he reads. He must have hyperlexia."
I hear this sentiment quite often from speech therapists and autism specialists. While older notions of hyperlexia looked at a difference between reading comprehension and reading ability as the basic diagnostic criteria, this criteria has several holes.
First, If a child began reading at the typical age of 5-6 and reads on an average level, but struggles with comprehension, that child is not hyperlexic ( Hyper=Early or advanced, Lexic= Reader). They are simply an average reader with a reading comprehension disorder (or simply showing a standard cognitive profile seen in a child with autism).
Secondly, this diagnostic criteria completely ignores the sub-population of early readers (ages 1-3) who, in fact, comprehend what they read (better than they comprehend spoken language).
Thirdly, it ignores the causality between global language processing and early reading. Children who are truly hyperlexic show a profile of language processing struggles and amazing early reading ability. The early reading is therefore a way to make meaning of a world when spoken language is confusing and muddled.
If a child, in fact, is not supported in their early reading ability, given the opportunity to gain important vocabulary, language structure, and communication skills through their first language (the printed word) then they will be delayed in global language comprehension, both print and spoken language.
A hyperlexic child who grows up in a print-rich environment with parents, therapists, and teachers who understand the nature of their learning style stand a greater chance of not falling into the "old" definition of hyperlexia. They may, in fact, NOT struggle with reading comprehension and just simply become amazing readers!