A New Thing For Parents To Worry About?

To believe Newsweek, if your kid's too precocious, it can be a sign of autism or Asperger's. But don't worry yet.

In an excerpt from a new memoir, Priscilla Gilman writes about realizing that her son Benjamin — whom she and her husband had merely considered brilliant — suffered from Hyperlexia (essentially the opposite of the better-known dyslexia.)

I typed some phrases about early reading and trouble answering questions into Google, and the first thing that came up was the American Hyperlexia Association's website. I read breathlessly about a syndrome I had never heard of, whose symptoms-precocious reading, an intense fascination with letters or numbers, difficulty in socializing and interacting appropriately with people-matched up so precisely with Benjamin that I was thunderstruck. The website suggested that kids with hyperlexia composed an extremely small subset of kids with high-functioning autism or Asperger's. I'd thought of autistic kids as kids who flapped their hands, banged their heads against walls, and never spoke or smiled. Benj had made eye contact, he was very smiley, happy, and responsive; he'd laughed at us frequently and chattered gaily throughout the day. Why would we ever have suspected this?

The excerpt would give the parents of any precocious child pause — but reading the full book, not as much. Gilman goes on at length about other symptoms that might have pointed to the diagnosis, including a disinclination for physical contact and repetitive behaviors that, in concert with his precocity, led to the diagnosis. As Slate points out,

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the Newsweek piece is a sneaky selection, because it has been put together to minimize the apparently quite real and serious problems that Benjamin exhibited (and that the full memoir seems to deal with), in favor of dwelling on the frightening paradox of his precociousness. There should be a platinum Ellie waiting for Tina Brown at the National Magazine Awards for All-Time Achievement in Alarming Coverage of Socioeconomically Advantaged Children's Problems.

While it would be hard to accuse the magazine of deliberate fear-mongering — after all, they could only include so much — the segment is misleading, and parents rarely need a reason for alarm. That said, as Slate points out, even a cursory Google should allay fears — both about the condition's symptoms and its severity sepctrum — so anyone doing an armchair diagnosis based on an excerpt would be wise to get, at the very least, an online second opinion.

Annals Of Parent Terrorizing [Slate]
The Child You Didn't Dream Of [Newsweek]