Annals of Parent-Terrorizing: Your Child Seems Brilliant. Could That Be a Sign of Severe Disability?

Parents of small children! Is your preschooler able to read and write already? If you just nodded “yes,” with a little flicker of pride and satisfaction—well, Tina Brown’s Newsweek has a revelation for you.

The April 18 issue presents an extract from a new memoir by Priscilla Gilman, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy . In the essay, Gilman shares the harrowing story of her son Benjamin, who learned to read too soon .

That’s right. At age 2 1/2, when he was able to spell words, recite poetry from memory, and put numbers in order, Benjamin flunked a preschool entrance exam—suffering, Gilman discovered, from the disorder called hyperlexia.

It’s not enough to worry about dyslexia. What if your child has gone too far the other way, and is too good at reading? In Benjamin’s case, Newsweek explains, what seemed to be brilliance was actually a devastating disability, a symptom of autism. “He didn’t have an interesting mind; he had faulty wiring,” Gilman writes.

It was an easy mistake for a loving parent to have made:

A lot of his phrases were very sophisticated—when he drank his juice, he’d often say something we’d taught him: “Cup of juice is not only tasty but also delicious!” and when we went outside at night, he’d sometimes say, “The moon is high in the sky and the stars shine bright,” something Richard had once said to him. All of these phrases, I now learned, were “context-appropriate delayed echolalia.”

You may be unsure—especially if you have had the experience of

learning a foreign language

as an adult—what the difference is between “context-appropriate delayed echolalia” and “language acquisition.” Is your charming three-year-old really just

Clever Hans

? Are you abetting the child’s suffering, without even realizing it?

No, probably not. But 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

. (Sorry, Adam Moss and New York magazine! You’ve been dethroned.)


Publisher’s Weekly review

of Gilman’s book, for instance, found room in its single long paragraph to mention Benjamin’s “aversion to physical affection,” while the four-page Newsweek account alternates between the clinical and the vague. (Benjamin had “sensory-integration dysfunction”; he “seemed to contradict romantic ideas of childhood and parenting.”)

So if you have your own bright child underfoot—or if you were ever a bright child yourself—most of the essay reads as a perverse guide to symptoms you never feared might count as symptoms. Benjamin liked putting numbers in order. He saw letters in the shapes of pasta and jewelry. He got absorbed in things he was doing and didn’t respond to questions.

But hyperlexia turns out to be the rare prospective condition that gets less scary when you start

looking it up on the Internet

. Beyond being a symptom of (or trait associated with) serious cases of autism—where it goes along with the more familiar problems, as it did for Benjamin—”hyperlexia” can also be invoked when a child learns to read early, loves numbers, and is kind of standoffish and awkward and high-strung.

Early reading, that is, can also be a symptom that your child is part of the range of human variety that used to be known—back when it was stigmatized but not yet widely pathologized—as “nerdy.” Or, in an older term, “bookish.”