Statements, EPs and hyperlexia

Over the last however many years, I suppose it must be 12 now, I’ve read a great many statements (SSEN) with varying levels of content. The first, my son’s, was never worth the paper it was written on. Vague and useless. I can only think its sole purpose was to provide funding for a Teaching Assistant and nothing more. I don’t think the LA had ever considered that it was supposed to detail what it was that my son actually needed! As a parent, I never gave it much thought until things started going wrong. It took 18mths for the LA to amend it, which was in addition to the 18mths where the school never contacted the School Support Team although I’d (quite reasonably) asked. No wonder things went badly wrong.

The wording on a SSEN is, by and large, drawn from whatever an Educational Psychologist (EP) has written in their report. How much on a report though is a) explained to parents and b) questioned?

I never really understood it all. From what I remember, the Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT) triggered something that then involved an EP. Someone along the line let slip that the Statutory Assessment process had twice been started and stopped, but this was without my knowledge (or indeed, my understanding). The first (LA) EP I saw was a lovely Scottish lady who was really easy to talk to, we sat in my garden one spring time, drinking coffee and chin-wagging like old mates. She left though and went back to Scotland.

My understanding has moved on. Not really by design, but I have very recently found myself in the (paid) role of a specialist (SpLD) tutor. I think a big part of me taking the courses that lead to this comes from my unpaid advocacy role. Knowing what assessments mean certainly helps there, but I’m increasingly finding myself explaining reports to the parents and carers I talk with. EPs and occasionally specialist teachers are producing reports which are never explained to parents/carers. Why not though? Too busy? Not thought of it? Scared something might be uncovered? No idea.

We put blind faith in these people, trust them and believe they must be right because they are a professional. Perhaps it is even more important to question these professionals now with the SEND reforms? Each professional’s report should include ‘outcomes’, an essential part of the new EHCPs. How will they support parents in writing in the ‘correct’ outcomes if parents don’t understand a word?

A few years ago I was involved in a case for someone I know very well. For ease, I shall refer to the lad as Jack (then aged 15). On my advice, the mother commissioned an independent EP report for tribunal. Now, there really shouldn’t be any significant difference between a report produced by an independent and a LA employed EP, should there?

The independent EP (let’s call her the iEP) did a range of tests* and spoke to the parent and the school. She also had sight of previous reports. The LA EP just used one test. The iEP is also a literacy specialist who teaches at university, the LA EP was a trainee.

The iEP picked up on Jack as being hyperlexic. Now hyperlexia is ‘my thing’, but something that’s not really been researched like other SpLDs such as dyslexia, and doesn’t have too much of a working definition. I first came across it on the NAGC website (now known as Potential Plus, a source of information and support for gifted children). As I read their resource, I realised that I was most likely a hyperlexic child and so my interest was sparked.

The LA EP used Richman (2002) as her source of information, so I pulled up the paper, which was actually Richman and Woods. They refer to Aaron’s (1989) description of hyperlexia as ‘the precocious ability to read words, usually before the age of 5, without prior formal training in learning to read’. Richman and Woods also included a definition which was credited to Silberberg and Silberberg (1967) who ‘indicated that the word decoding ability must be significantly higher than reading comprehension’. There has been debate about creating some kind of formal grouping of these children, with research generally being inconclusive. However, the research I’ve been able to uncover and read thus far links hyperlexia with other atypical development such as SpLDs, where general cognitive ability is average or above average.

Hyperlexia also appears to be linked advanced memory skills according to Richman and Woods. Is hyperlexia is a subtype of dyslexia, or does it stems from a language disorder? Richman and Woods concluded from their research that there’s possibly 2 types of hyperlexia, one linked to language disorders and one to dyslexia. However, of the 38 initial participants, only two had ASD. It is not reported if either made the final 30 for the research project. It therefore is difficult to assign the result of this research to a case of a child with an ASD who, by virtue of having an ASD diagnosis, also has a language disorder.

Richman and Woods’ research does not address whether hyperlexia can exist separately from other language disorders (e.g. in oral or written domains). According to Newman et al (2007), Silberberg and Silberberg reported that the majority of children with hyperlexia also had behaviours in common with autism. This being the case, I was left wondering why an EP would chose to reference a paper which does not include children with ASD on a report for a child with ASD!

Newman et al also discuss the imbalance between the ability to decode single words relative to comprehension of the text. They go further to discuss the compulsive nature to read at the expense of other forms of communication. Their research discusses the application similar models of reading as employed in defining dyslexia, with a suggestion that ‘hyperlexic reading is not exclusively based on visual memory and involves, to some degree, some symbol mapping and decoding’. Those in the study with hyperlexia were unfazed by how letters/words were presented, eg, back-to-front or upside-down.

Unusual difficulties were encountered during Newman at al’s research, such as quantifying comprehension scores since some of the children were too young for usual test standardisation. The young age of the subjects also meant that some phonological tasks were too complex to capture what was really happening. Unlike some other studies, they considered that working memory did not appear to play a role in hyperlexia. Interestingly, to evaluate comprehension, subjects read a passage and were forced to make a value judgement. Newman et al argue that testing fluency in itself is inadequate, since reading speed remains unaltered in hyperlexics when reading words out of place, or when the words become more complex, since these do not force comprehension.

It is, perhaps, something teachers should consider when assessing students. Personally I use two different types of comprehension assessment tools, one that uses a cloze-style test and another which requires the student to read passages of increasing complexity and answer different types of question. Newman et al promote a similar mix. Their research concluded that when matched with typically developing peers, those with ASD were comparable in all areas except comprehension.

The working definition frequently used for hyperlexia does not include a measurement of how low comprehension should be in relation to reading ability. From the papers I have read, I would propose a definition along the following lines:

  • A precocious and spontaneous ability to read prior to age 5;
  • Reading may be at the expense of other forms of communication;
  • Reading ability is two years above chronological age;
  • Comprehension is at least 1 standard deviation below reading ability (SD=15 points);
  • May include above average working memory.

In her report, the LA EP stated:

  • A hyperlexic profile was not evident in the information held on his file
  • Throughout his schooling, he appears to demonstrated age-appropriate level of reading comprehension, in line with his decoding and word recognition skills.
  • Single word reading SS** 104
  • Word definitions SS 107
  • Verbal similarities SS 104

The iEP stated:

  • Single word reading SS 112
  • Phonic decoding SS 115
  • Comprehension SS 98

I realise that without the full reports, the whole picture cannot be ascertained. However, there are further clues to follow in the form of past recorded history I will use here. At age 4yrs 6mths, Jack is reported by an LA EP as:

  • Able to sight read around 30 words before he was 3yrs old
  • During a previous visit (age 3yrs 11mths), ‘Jack asked us to write words down, then he stuck them on doors and windows’
  • ‘Jack’s TA was surprised by his recognition of words […]. She indicated that she had not seen evidence of some skills demonstrated during the assessment’
  • Clearly delayed in his communication skills
  • Verbal comprehension and short-term memory well ahead of his chronological age.
  • Demonstrates advanced skills on a computer. He understands the symbols and will repeat a complex sequence of moves after being shown once.

At 8yrs 10mths:

  • Single word reading SS 127
  • Word definitions SS 132
  • Verbal similarities SS 103
  • ‘These results indicate advanced word reading skills’.

In addition, delayed language skills was reported by the SaLT and early reading skills reported by the Nursery School.

It could be argued that Jack does not meet the criteria for hyperlexia due to having comprehension skills that fall within the average range, but I prefer to look at the discrepancy between reading and comprehension abilities. This, I believe, is also reflected in the research papers. It is difficult to establish differences in abilities in Jack’s oral and written language domains as insufficient assessment was carried out over the years. Extended comprehension assessments may well have unearthed issues in line with the iEPs conclusions.

Lin (2014) helpfully states that while strategies for reading are well-developed, but limited in reading comprehension, they are not absent. Lin discusses the various criteria for identifying hyperlexia for the purpose of research, which vary between participants whose reading ability was one or two standard deviations above their typically developing peers, or two years ahead. At 8yrs 10mths, Jack’s single word reading age was 13yrs 3mths, but his verbal similarities (meaning-based) age was 9yrs 3mths. Still above his chronological age but with a 4yr discrepancy. It would not seem logical to discount such a gap as not being significant to the diagnosis of hyperlexia.

Interestingly, Newman et al discuss hyperlexia as a possible marker for positive outcomes in ASD. The outcomes for Jack do seem very positive.

The point of this post, beyond describing hyperlexia, is to question any report produced for a child since those reports will form the basis of any support given. I do not accept that the indicators for hyperlexia were absent and I believe that provision for this should have been made on his statement. It is easy to give a cursory glance to assessment statistics, to leave it to the SENCO, to not compare new data with old. It is even easier to simply accept that the professional that is further up the pecking order must be right. Blind faith is never good.

The LA conceded after the hearing was adjourned.

* Range as in, not just ‘core’ and/or ‘subtests’ from the same source.

** Scores were all converted to Standard Scored for ease of comparison (http://www.medfriendly.com/standardscoretopercentileconversion.html)

References

Lin, C-S. (2014) ‘Early language learning profiles of young children with autism: Hyperlexia and its subtypes’ in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders Vol 8, pp 168-177

Newman, T., M., Macomber, D., Naples, A., J., Babitz, T., Volkmar, F. and Grigorenko, E., L. (2007) ‘Hyperlexia in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders’ in Journal of Autism & Development Disorders Vol 37, pp 760-774

Richman, L., C. and Woods, K., M. (2002) ‘Learning disability subtypes: classification of high functioning hyperlexia’ in Brain and Language Vol 82, pp 10-21

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