Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Why You Shouldn't Discourage Your Hyperlexic Child's Obsession with Letters (& What To Do Instead)

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A look at special interests in hyperlexia and the reasons why parents shouldn't discourage their hyperlexic child's obsession or fascination with letters.

When it comes to hyperlexia, there are usually 3-5 reoccurring questions that I get asked. And it's the same questions I see over and over again in the hyperlexia Facebook groups when someone first learns about hyperlexia.

One of those questions usually goes along the lines of this:

"My child is obsessed with letters and it's really intense. Their [insert type of professional or therapist here] recommended that we take away his letters or be exposed to letters as little as possible. What are your thoughts?"

My first thought is always this: you need to get a new therapist ASAP.

Because it is quite clear to me that they truly don't understand hyperlexia (or autism for that matter) if that is the kind of advice they are giving you.

Also, that should tell you that this "therapist" isn't going to take any kind of strength-based approach with your child. And that's not a good thing. At all. In fact, that should be a huge red flag (read: how to decide which therapies are right for your autistic child).

So, since this question keeps coming up again and again, I'm going to finally address it here properly.

Below I will explain why you shouldn't discourage your hyperlexic child's obsession with letters (or any other special interest, for that matter).

If you have a toddler obsessed with the alphabet, they may have hyperlexia - please don't discourage their letter play!

Understanding Your Child's Special Interest in Letters

Before I dive into the reasons, I first want to encourage you to watch this video about special interests from Amythest Schaber's Ask an Autistic series. It has a lot of great information and I will make references to the video later on.

So go on...watch it.



7 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Discourage Your Hyperlexic Child's Letter Play

I'm sure I could come up with a lot more reasons than these seven, but alas, I'm going to keep it to seven. Also, did you watch the video above? I sure hope so!

1. Your child's special interest is a coping mechanism

Like stimming, when your child is engaging in their special interest, it allows them to self-regulate and cope with the world around them. It helps them relax or unwind. Watch the video above at around the 6 minute mark for further elaboration on this point.

2. Their special interest gives them immense joy

Playing with their letters makes your child happy. So tell me why you would willingly remove something that makes them happy. It just doesn't make any sense.

And you should question the judgment of any therapist who recommends limiting access to something that brings your child joy, especially when that interest isn't causing harm to anyone or anything (see point four below).

"It's important to remember when 'teaching to the talent' start where the child is. These special interest areas are a great place to start pairing verbal language with the activities the child already enjoys. This gives the child the language that she/he loves and shows the child the value of being able to express what delights them. This makes the use of language reinforcing in and of itself." - Treffert et al., Hyperlexia Manual: A Guide to Children Who Read Early

3. Taking away or limiting the special interest can have negative effects

Interestingly when I'm asked about the whole limit the letter play topic, the person asking for my opinion usually mentions that they saw an increase in negative behaviors, aggression, etc. when they started limiting the letter play.

Just think about why that would be.

When you limit the letters, you take away one of their main coping mechanisms. So if they don't have another way to regulate their bodies and emotions, then you bet you're going to see an increase in negative behaviors.

4. Their special interest likely isn't hurting anyone or anything

Just like any other stim (read point one there), if your child's special interest isn't hurting anyone or damaging anything, then leave it be. Let your child stim and play with their letters. Watch the video mentioned above at around the 9:30 marker for more information.

5. Taking away their special interest is disrespectful

When you take away or limit your child's letter play, you are basically telling your child that their interests are inherently "bad," undesirable, and/or not valuable. Is that what you want to communicate with your child? And how would you feel if someone intentionally limited your access to a special interest of yours?

6. Their special interest could turn into a hobby or even a job in the future

Your child's love for letters (or any other special interest!) could very well be a future hobby or job for them. So leave the opportunity open for them to pursue their passions.

7. Even the hyperlexia experts agree to encourage your child's strengths and to "teach to the talent"

Finally, I will leave you with some quotes from some hyperlexia experts, books, and manuals...

  • "Incorporate what each child is interested in into lessons." - Kupperman, Hyperlexia, Therapy That Works
  • "Take advantage of the child's interests or obsessions by using them as the basis for teaching activities and as motivators." - Kupperman, Hyperlexia, Therapy That Works
  • "Drawing children into new activities based on their obsessions." - Kupperman (2018), Hyperlexia: An SLP's Point of View presentation
  • "As clinicians, we may identify strengths, but then ignore them as we focus on the deficit areas. This case study demonstrates how beneficial it can be to use a child's strengths in one domain to leverage language growth in others." - Craig & Telfer (2005), Hyperlexia and autism spectrum disorder: A case study of scaffolding language growth over time
  • "If a child has a special interest or talent, be sure to encourage it, and use it for participation." - Kupperman et al. (1998), Hyperlexia
  • "It is urgent that activities be made fun, strength-based and at the child's pace to assure success. This ensures that instilling a joy of learning and engagement, rather than just drilling skills." - Treffert et al., Hyperelxia Manual: A Guide to Children Who Read Early

What You Should Do Instead

Obviously, this is the part where I say embrace those letters and just simply let your child play with their beloved alphabet toys. But I'm going to go one step further and show you how to actually use your child's special interests, whether it's letters or something else.

"Eighty percent of the time the focus should be supporting and developing the child's strengths or what they are being drawn to in their environment. The other 20 percent of the time should be building off of those strengths to promote new learning." - Treffert et al., Hyperlexia Manual: A Guide to Children Who Read Early

1. Ask your child to share those interests with you

Think about something that you are passionate about. Now think about how you feel when someone else is genuinely interested in that same topic or someone asks you to talk about that topic. Do you get fired up and excited? Almost giddy? Yeah, me too! The same applies to your child and their special interests.

So ask your child questions about their special interests. Let them open up and share their passion with you.

For example, you could ask them what their favorite letter is and why or to name some cool words that start with a certain letter.

"High-interest activities such as letters can be used to teach new skills." - Kupperman, Hyperlexia, Therapy That Works

2. Incorporate their interests to teach new skills

I've already touched on this particular point a bit above, but maybe you are wondering how you can go about doing this at home. Here are some suggestions:

  • Build gross motor skills by playing hopscotch with letters instead of numbers or learning to ride a bike by following letters written on the sidewalk with chalk
  • Read ABC books about other topics (there are seriously ABC books about every topic imaginable!)
"Be creative in turning the learner's interests into learning opportunities." - Treffert et al., Hyperlexia Manual: A Guide to Children Who Read Early

3. Use those interests to connect with your child

Put simply: just play. Join them in their letter play. This can mean:

  • Reading alphabet books together
  • Spelling out words with their favorite letter toys and asking them to read what it says
  • Playing hangman or other word games together
  • Watching Wheel of Fortune together
  • Baking alphabet cookies and decorating them together
"Ultimately, your child will let you know what he or she is interested in. Go from there, and enjoy your child." - Susan Martins Miller, Reading Too Soon

So to Recap...

Don't discourage your hyperlexic child's special interest in letters. Ditch the therapists or professionals who tell you to do the opposite. And go embrace your child for who they are, special interests and all.

Other Hyperlexia Resources You'll Love




A plea for parents (and therapists) of kids with hyperlexia to not discourage the letter play

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