Before we knew that Alex had autism, we knew he could read. By the age of two, he could recognize and recite the alphabet and numbers, and by the time he was three, he could read aloud words from flash cards. When we went to stores or restaurants, we thought it was cute that he would notice signs and logos and say, “EXIT” or “VISA” as he read off the familiar words. Unlike most kids, he often preferred looking at cards instead of the presents that came with them. He also was held in rapt attention as he watched the credits of t.v. shows, and he loved the game show Wheel of Fortune with all its letters and words. While he liked his picture books, he also studied books without pictures, including my college psychology textbooks--not a typical pastime for a preschooler.
When Alex was diagnosed with autism, he was also identified as having a rather rare condition known as hyperlexia, a precocious ability to read. While the ability to read is impressive in a preschooler, as the hyperlexic child matures, this savant skill becomes less obvious because all of his/her peers can read by the age of 6 or 7, as well. For Alex, he seemed to learn language backwards: most children learn to speak before they can read, but he seemed to learn written words before he could say them. This was actually a blessing because we could use written words to teach him to speak.
In addition to providing many books for Alex to read, we also bought him a Franklin Spelling Ace electronic dictionary that allowed him to type in the words he couldn’t figure out how to say. I put Post-it notes on objects around the house and would say the words for him, hoping that, like Helen Keller and “water,” we could make a breakthrough. He understood that words have context and meaning, and his vocabulary has grown with time. As one of my seventh grade students reassured me years ago when I was explaining Alex’s hyperlexia, “Mrs. Byrne, if he can read, he can do anything!” Indeed, reading has been an asset in helping Alex overcome his speech delays.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Proverbs 25:11