This is intended to be the first in a series of posts in which I look back onto my childhood and youth with the possibility in mind that I might have been on the spectrum all along. Of course, for the longest time that never occurred to me. But now I might see things in a different light, interpret events differently and take a different perspective. This is an important path on my journey, I think, as my past has been one of the arguments that my own head puts forward for my not being autistic. Simply put, the little devil on my shoulder tells me that my childhood was too happy, I’ve had it too easy, and that the descriptions of autistic children in the literature do not fit me at all. But the little angel on my other shoulder says that see from the right perspective, the signs might well have been there, and it was only circumstances that prevented everyone from drawing the right conclusion. Seen from a spectrum perspective, what re-interpretations can I come up with?
So, on with the SpectreSpecs, and lets see what we can find. Today I want to talk about something that is not considered a “symptom” of autism, but is often reported to go hand in hand with it: hyperlexia.
Was I hyperlexic? Well, yes and no. There is no straightforward answer to this. I will have to take you onto a journey into my childhood, and tell you when and how I learned to read.
According to my mother, it was just before my third birthday that I figured out how to string letters together to make words. I don’t think I knew all the letters, but I certainly recognised some of them, and it appears that I could also take the next step. The story goes that we were in a shop, where I pointed at a jar of honey and pronounced “that says EDEN” (a brand of honey in Germany). I have a vague memory of being able to read the name of a chain of supermarkets (EDEKA), and another vague memory of sitting on my father’s lap with a magazine and picking out a particular word in the print. Not that I could actually read, I just recognised that one word.
Anyway, from that it doesn’t follow that I rapidly advanced to reading my picture books and starting on my parents’ encyclopedia by the age of three. Things advanced much more slowly than that. Over time I recognised more and more letters and learned to read more words. My next memories are from when I was four. By that time I was reading the titles of my parents’ books. I did this many times, over and over, I think it was quite a stimmy thing to do as well, going along the spines and spelling them out one by one, enjoying the fireworks of associations they set off in my brain. I’m not sure I could make much sense of “The Hittites” and “Viking Sagas”, but I certainly could read the words.
“Well, duh”, I hear you say, “everyone learns to read at four because that’s when you start school.” Not at that time, and not in that place. There was no “nursery school”, no “reception class”. There was kindergarten which I started to attend when I was about four and a half. But kindergarten was not for learning, at least not of the academic kind. Kindergarten was for playing, for singing songs, for crafts. Any learning was about getting along with other kids, playing nicely, sharing – that kind of social learning. There was no expectation that we would learn numbers and letters, there was certainly no targeted teaching of these things. I think they tried to teach everyone to at least write their name, but there was no question of “failing” kindergarten if you couldn’t.
During that time I continued on my own private path to literacy. By five and a half I could read the picture books for myself. My mother tells me that basically as soon as I could read them quietly, I could also read them out loud to others. I have a very dim memory of doing that, reading out books to the other kids. How did I learn to read then? I have no idea. I like to say it was by osmosis. It just happened. Nobody sat down with me and purposely taught me. If I asked, I would get answers, but no lessons.
What about school then? The normal time for starting school was the summer after you turned six. My birthday is early in the year, so I was six and a half. By that time I could read proper books, not just picture books. For Christmas just before I turned six I got “Heidi” – not a simplified version either, but with the original language preserved, only the 19th century spelling had been updated. My mother read it to me first, and then I read it for myself. “Winnie the Pooh” or “Little House on the Prairie”, that’s the sort of book I could read at that age. So you could say I was completely literate when I started school. There was one other girl in my class who read at the same level, and some others caught up fairly quickly. However, there was no expectation that a child would already know anything. School was designed to teach them to read. Funny thing is, I can’t remember being bored in lessons because I was ahead of everyone else. Perhaps I was allowed to read something else in the meantime? I don’t know, I simply can’t remember. Also, I had to learn joined up writing, which was as new to me as to everyone else.
So, that is how I learned to read, and of course I haven’t stopped reading since. Was I hyperlexic? If that means being able to read fluently before it is expected of you, then yes. If it means being able to read astonishingly early, then no. Besides, in my family no one was particularly astonished anyway. Okay, no one expected me to learn to read early, but it was not singled out as something particularly amazing either. I think my parents were pleased and went along with it. I grew up in an environment filled with books. Books were normal. Reading a lot was normal. In our household, that kind of behaviour did not stand out in any way. I can see my niece treading the same path now. She’s four, and she’s starting to put letters together to make words. She’s clearly figured out how this reading thing works. Well, they do say that Aspie traits run in the family…
As a quick aside, a word about my spoken language. Once I got over the phase of saying “you” when I meant “me”, it appears that from an early age I could use grammar correctly, including conditional and subjunctive moods. Pedantic speech, anyone?
So: hyperlexic or not? I still don’t know. But considering that there are so many books and so little time, it’s a good thing I got an early start!
Image: The “classics” shelf at my local library. No, I haven’t read them all.