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Does My Gifted Child have a Disability?

My son must be hyperlexic, I was told. After all, he was reading adult books at age two. That's not normal, even for gifted kids, so he must have this disorder characterized by advanced reading ability demonstrated by preschool age children. This was all said by the special education coordinator in my town, when my son was five and tested through the public school department.

I went home and googled hyperlexia and read all I could find on the syndrome. It turns out that advanced reading ability is the ONLY symptom of hyperlexia my son had. Various sources such as Wikipedia and the American Hyperlexic Society describe more troubling symptoms that include delayed or impaired speech, difficulty understanding verbal communication, and abnormal social skills. Many kids with hyperlexia fit in on the autism spectrum.

Clearly, my son had none of these issues. He was actually quite socially aware and popular. What shocked me is the way in which his academic strengths were pathologized, by someone who could throw out a life altering label without taking the time to see if it truly fit this child. This little boy was very outgoing and had no trouble conversing with adults or other children. He had many friends and enjoyed being part of a busy social network. His reading comprehension was also extremely high; his understanding of printed material was quite the opposite of impaired.

In hindsight, I believe that the special education teacher was so used to viewing children through their deficits, that she was unsure what to make of a child so uniquely advanced. She grasped at a term she was not completely familiar with, and it settled a tidy little place for him in her mind.

Armchair diagnosis by a person without proper training is all too common, and can be devastating for the child and family involved. Not every parent will go home and do research, and feel comfortable disagreeing with a person seen as an authority on child development. It is vital that every parent listen with an open mind if a disability is suspected, and seek information and resources to confirm or deny such a label. In many cases, only a qualified neuropsychologist can say for sure if a child has a particular syndrome or not. A proper diagnosis for a child who is truly twice exceptional should be seen as a positive thing.

Many parents of gifted children are told by friends, teachers, and well meaning friends that their gifted child “must” have Asperger's Syndrome, hyperlexia, or Attention Deficit. Gifted children are by their very nature inquisitive, with deep seated interests. Some of the identifiers for giftedness overlap with those for these disorders. It may be true that the child has some symptoms of these disorders, but in the end the labels are just clusters of symptoms that are cobbled together to help describe a certain type of behaviors. If they don't help you to understand your child better, and help your child to understand and advocate for himself, then they don't serve any purpose and should be disregarded. Parents know their children best.

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