An Illness That Causes Compulsive Reading

ByABC News
April 10, 2002, 7:19 PM

April 11 -- When Jimmy suddenly started to read as a toddler still in diapers, his parents were shocked.

"We have these flashcards," explained his mom Janine, and "he just out of the blue pulled them out, and he started saying some of the words It was amazing."

Likewise, at 3 1/2 years old, Kyler can read just about anything his mother Alma puts in front of him. He taught himself the letters, numbers and shapes without any help. While lots of children are fascinated by cars, Kyler focused on the lettering, pointing out car names and license plate details.

Most parents would have been proud of their child's incredible intellectual gift. And at first, Jimmy's and Kyler's parents were. But they soon discovered that their boys' astounding fluency for shapes and numbers was shadowed by problems.

Their dazzling ability to read is in fact a rare syndrome called hyperlexia, which means excessive reading. The illness, which affects mostly boys, is so unusual no one is sure how many kids it affects. It is accompanied by significant delays in language, and an inability to interact normally with others. Some who are affected with hyperlexia also suffer from autism.

A Physical Need

When Kyler turned 2, his mother realized that his desire to read voraciously was not a choice he made.

"It seemed like an obsession for him," said Alma. "Basically he ignored his environment and he would just look at signs and letters He was not interested in associating with other people."

For Jimmy, too, his reading ability had serious drawbacks. "He wouldn't do anything that didn't have to do with letters and numbers," said his mother.

Margie, another mother of a hyperlexic child named Alex, remembers when her pride turned to concern. One Thanksgiving, Alex was so absorbed in a book that he refused to join the family.

"It wasn't just something that he wanted to do. He had to do it," said Margie. "It was like a physical need for Alex, that he had to decode things in order to be calm and happy."