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Experts say the darndest things: hyperlexia edition!

January 8, 2013

Lately, I’ve been frustrated at some stalled language-learning efforts. It’s particularly frustrating, since I was always assumed to be somehow monolithically “good with languages” (no such beast), and still tend to disappoint myself sometimes when things just aren’t that simple. In reality, given the “hyperlexia”, I’m using different modules to handle language from what most people seem to be doing, which is also why wrapping words around ideas is one of the first things I have trouble with when I’m overloaded and/or having health problems. Maybe I’m being overly stubborn, still wanting to push when pain levels in particular are giving me problems concentrating on reading larger chunks of text lately, which feels extra freaky when it’s usually “I’m awake; therefore, I read.” Trying to get some feeling of obvious accomplishment is a good bit of it, no doubt.

But, I am still determined to get to some kind of level of fluency in Cherokee, partly because of the endangered language factor, besides brushing up on German and getting better with Spanish. I’d also like to work with several others, but those are the ones I’m immediately more interested in focusing on. (And are sufficiently different not to confuse myself, trying.)

Part of my problem with Cherokee, besides the very different basic structure, is coming from trying to use the syllabary without my brain running out my ears.* Which combines pretty poorly with what seems to work best for me to pick up grammar, etc.: lots and lots of reading, looking up things I don’t understand. That seems to be my best plan with the rusty, rusty never quite fluent German and marginal-at-best Spanish.

But, it is also frustrating having to come up with a plan of attack on your own, to suit your own learning style, especially when it is sufficiently unusual that most formal educational approaches just don’t work that well for you. And it’s hard to figure out where to look for tips. So, I resorted to looking for more detailed information on how people whose brains handle language similarly tend to learn best. Beyond the very basic (if, as usual, condescendingly stated), such as:

Unlike other children, hyperlexic children don’t learn language in the typical language learning progression of sounds to words to sentences, nor do they begin to develop a vocabulary starting with nouns, adding verbs and do on. Instead hyperlexic children memorize phrases, sentences or entire conversations. To express an idea, the children must be able to dissect what they have memorized to create original expressions.

Hyperlexic children have excellent visual and auditory memories, which means they easily remember what they see and hear. They use their memory to help them learn language.

Or the bleedingly obvious to anyone who has actually been there:

The findings provide support for the notion that word recognition and spelling in a FL may be modular processes and exist independently of general cognitive and linguistic skills. Results also suggest that students may have stronger FL learning skills in one language component than in other components of language, and that there may be a weak relationship between FL word recognition and oral proficiency in the FL.It’s just more obvious with later additional language acquisition.

These differences are just more evident when someone is learning another language from scratch, when older; AFAICT, that also applies to a first language, with time and experience often helping it look more even. I also question whether there’s any such beast as “general cognitive and linguistic skills”, rather than a variety of mental modules which can be strung together in various ways and applied to different purposes, with not everybody even using the same ones for the same purposes. Much like “general intelligence”/athletic ability/etc., it’s a simplistic and lazy model. Not surprisingly, I also question how well they can evaluate reading comprehension, per se, if the person may be having trouble wrapping words around an answer on demand. Not necessarily measuring what they think they’re measuring, which these conclusions unintentionally admit. (Besides the good old “but you couldn’t possibly understand what you’re reading, so far above your expected level!!!” factor. *sigh*) Besides the usual insistence on “if it’s a less usual pattern, it must be disordered even if it helps“, of course. 😐

I was expecting to have to sort through some condescending crap, but oh man. Not surprisingly, most of the stuff I ran across was aimed at “fixing” kids viewed as interesting insects. (Not too surprisingly, since this approach to language is most common among people somewhere on the autistic spectrum.) Some of it was trying to sound positive on the “superability partly compensating for all the related awfulness” front, but it still made me ill. This stuff was mostly not even trying to be subtle in the views from above department.

I don’t even have the energy or tolerance to track down many links (just search on something like “hyperlexia language learning”, and you’ll find plenty). But, here are a few highlights I remembered and tracked down again. From people who have set themselves up as experts, and manage to make money off advice like this. (Conflicts of interest? Hmm…)

Starting speech and language therapy as early as possible is really important…

If you notice that a child is reading at a much earlier age than expected (for example, reading long words at the age of two years), is later than other children in learning to talk, or is experiencing difficulty making friends, it is wise to discuss your concerns with your GP, your local speech and language therapist or the relevant child development service.

Early diagnosis of any difficulties will mean that the appropriate help for the child can be put in place as soon as possible.

Children with hyperlexia whose difficulties are noticed at a young age will tend to make better progress than those who do not get the early support they need. #

Overall, there is just so much focus on “fixing” the often associated “deficits”, and not so much on actually working with the individual’s learning style, which keeps popping up. This one, like so much of the rest, is working off the assumption that we all have the same difficulties, which should be addressed in the same ways. This one is relatively mild, but it does help set the catastrophizing tone. I also continue to be amazed that, apparently, some parents really do get concerned about early/prolific reading. What looked odd in my own family was when one of my younger cousins didn’t start reading on her own well before she was old enough to start school, and needed some specific teaching there. (She did show some mild signs of dyslexia, but learned to work around that pretty quickly.) No catastrophizing required nor desired, in that case.

We have often been asked why we identify children with hyperlexia if they have other diagnoses or conditions. The most important reason is that these children learn primarily through reading, so the therapeutic and educational programs that we devise for them must take their reading skills into account. The reading skills of these children are their strength, and we use this strength to develop their weaker skills… [So far, so good – U.]

Identification of hyperlexia is most important when children are young, because early intervention increases children’s chances for success, and since reading is a powerful tool for learning language and social skills, Once a child begins to understand verbal language, written language call be gradually decreased and used only in certain situations when something new or confusing is introduced. Although symptoms tend to decrease over time, the characteristic learning style remains through adulthood… [At least it mentions adults, but who would expect otherwise?! Also, maybe the goal of using less written language is a lot more convenient for the people around our “sufferer”. -U ] #

A good number of the listed suggestions there make me want to vomit, applied without much regard for the individual’s needs (including “Rote learning is good” and “Punishment does not work”). For more reasonable-sounding stuff mixed in with bizarre assumptions and recommendations, there is also this one; I’d have felt condescended at and not very helped when I was three, with half of what they’re suggesting. Also, from that last link, apparently:

These children may show the following behaviours:
• Form close relationships with chosen family members and/or

■ Children with hyperlexia will not ‘pick up’ language from the
culture around them, so they must be taught very specifically.

All I can say is, at least they’re not acting like we are inherently just not interested in other people–but, wow, they need to point this out?! And I’m not sure how that second one would even be possible, much less applied to absolutely everyone who starts reading early and whose brain handles language in a particular way.

But, probably my favorite from the previous quoted page, for the multiple layers of WTF:

Social skills are important and need to be specifically taught and practiced. Boys and girls need different kinds of social language groups until the teen years, at which time trans­gender communication is the issue. #

OK, even phrased better, that would still sound ridiculous. Now we need totally different social skills based on assigned gender–and we’re totes the only ones who actually need taught social skills–until “transgender communication is the issue”. They sound pretty confused about the actual issues. And the folks they’re talking about like bugs are supposed to be the ones who have trouble with comprehension and expressing themselves. *sigh* (With the ironic addition, next in the list, of “Some people will never understand, and that is okay. Appreciate those who make the effort.” If I thought they were trying very hard not to dehumanize kids, sure.)

And, one that had both Mr. U and me practically howling in the floor:

Do children with hyperlexia get better?

Children with hyperlexia do improve in language and social skills. Some individuals improve to the point that they are able to go to college or live independently, although some will need special education and supervised living arrangements throughout their lives. 

That one was also from CSLD, of the “transgender communication”.  Mr. U certainly managed to get a university education and live “independently”, with nobody ever suggesting that this might be iffy. And is also using a second language extremely fluently, on a daily basis.  By most standards, I also fit those criteria for “getting better”, even if the paid work thing is tricky right now, mostly thanks to unrelated physical problems.

I may have ended up crashing out of college, partly thanks to unaddressed learning differences**, but nobody suggested that maybe I shouldn’t even try in the first place. Now that I have a better idea of how to work around some of the problems, I’m considering working with my strengths and going back for a law degree. Nobody questioned Mr. U’s ability to get a good education and a well-paying career. (We also both started talking very early, in spite of stereotypes there. Not everyone is the same.) Some of my relatives were late talkers, and they all fit the decently educated and living “independently” criteria–largely because nobody expected that this might be impossible. (Which I keep putting in scare quotes, because nobody really lives independently. Lots of those in this post, again, but some of the vocabulary as applied makes my brain hurt.) And even if none of this was true, we’d still deserve respect.

An interview with Andrew Solomon seems very relevant here (found via thAutcast). I haven’t read his book yet, but he makes some excellent points.

So a vertical identity is whatever is passed down generationally. And horizontal identity is what happens when a child is different from his family.

You argue that vertical identities are valued — and the horizontal identities are often the ones that parents initially try to change.

Yes, anything that is passed down generationally, almost without exception, gets valued. If your children have Huntington’s disease and you do too, then there’s no question in everyone’s mind that it is a terrible illness — you’re likely to die young from it and it would be great to find a way to cure it.

You could say that it’s as much of a disadvantage in many parts of America to be black as it is to be gay. But you don’t have black parents bringing up their children to be not black. But you do have all of these straight parents wishing they could make their children not gay, because there is a natural tendency to think whatever your dealing with, whatever your experience is, whatever your way of being happy, is really the primary, best, and the only way of being happy. And that belief caused those parents to attempt to rectify these differences in their children. The children discover, actually, lots of people have the same condition I do; I’m part of the culture. It’s a vibrant culture. And the parents then have to reconcile themselves to the culture that their children inhabit, which is completely foreign to them.

A lot of people whose own experience is different really do want to help by trying to fix the “negatives”. Not only is that a losing proposition (as compared to working with the way a person is), a lot of people do not even fully understand their own motives in doing it.

Which leads to one of the most infuriating and exasperating things about these assumptions that everybody is the same, and it might all end badly without scads of professional “early intervention” (or, as that quote implies, even with): kids are going to pick up on low expectations, and the fact that you think there is something bad enough wrong with them that they need to “get better”. Putting emphasis on their “deficits” and making them feel like substandard, stunted human beings sucks. Is this likely to encourage greater happiness, much less achievement? Probably not.

And the discussion/”helping” is all about the kids. Who are exactly the group of people who least need the low expectations and catastrophizing. Respectful help in areas where they are running into problems, and working with their individual learning styles? Of course. These are not the same things, at all. And it is not just certain rather arbitrarily defined categories of people who need that. We all need various kinds of support.

In short, you run into the exact same problems trying to find actually useful information about “hyperlexia”, as with anything else involving neurodiversity. In this case, it’s even more striking that most of the theorizing about defective kids seems to assume that the insects being examined/described are not real people who are ever going to read it. When they are talking condescendingly about people for whom reading is just what we do. Maybe they just don’t care that we know they’re seriously Othering us, which is worse.


* See also: The mystery of why the Cherokee syllabary sucks., which made me laugh so hard when I ran across it.

Quick, which of these two words says Tsalagi (the Cherokee word for Cherokee)?

The answer is… I think I got them both wrong. Could you imagine writing a grocery list like this?

Sequoyah’s original characters had to be changed pretty much totally, when it went to the printer’s. Thus the weird mix of Roman, Greek, etc. symbols, and ones changed to various degrees so that you get, say, four or five different characters (out of 85) that look like different styles of a W. That interacts very, very badly with my own personal style of personification synesthesia. (Mine also includes words-as-units, which makes sense with my “hyperlexic”mind treating them as units! And it’s not anthropomorphized the way that a lot of people’s seems to be.) I’m trying to use one of the programs that automatically translates Romanized syllables into syllabary characters to try to get used to looking at and associating it with the sounds, but it still gives me a splitting headache every time. My brain is also just not set up for a phonics-based approach. 😐 Still trying to figure out how to get bootstrapped to the point of being able to start reading more text written in it, which is probably the best approach to picking up details of grammar in a sensible-for-me way.

It has certainly occurred to me that I might do well with learning Chinese characters, given the way my brain handles things. I still haven’t had the spoons to try that, though.

** Not the only factor, of course. I still tend to give myself a hard time about it, but it was mainly sheer bloodymindedness that made me hang in as long as I did. Between a pretty much total lack of understanding of how to work with my own learning style, trying to work multiple part-time jobs, dealing with a rapey stalker, and reacting badly to the Paxil bandaid for the stress decompensation (which was not seen as such at the time, at all)–it’s surprising it took so long to spectacularly burn out. But, yeah, that’s how lazy and unmotivated I really am…

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 8, 2013 7:16 pm

    hmm… Now I am pondering hyperlexia! It’s weird that hyperlexia would be viewed as a deficiency, but I guess not surprising. *sad face* Especially if it comes with a delay in spoken language. I don’t know much about hyperlexia and so far all I’ve read is the wikipedia article, but my interest is piqued. I was reading independently before kindergarten, and I remember not really understanding why we had to go through the alphabet when I already knew how to read. Though I was also a precocious speaker, saying my first full sentence at all of six months old.

    This bit of the wiki article definitely caught my attention: “hyperlexic children excel at word decoding but often have poor reading comprehension abilities.”

    If by reading comprehension we mean the ability to understand what we’ve read, I had no problems at all with that. On the other hand, I was accused of it on occasion because I had difficult in re-stating what I read in different words. That was a skill that took me a long time. to figure out.

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