dyslexia, hyperlexia, and classism

Priscilla Gilman’s The Anti-Romantic Child wasn’t an enjoyable autism memoir I can identify with, like Songs of the Gorilla Nation. It has a lot of things to comment on, though, since this is the third post about it.

I thought she made a really interesting observation about the discourses surrounding dyslexia vs. hyperlexia. I hadn’t seen this line of thinking anywhere else:

Over and over again, I’ve found that even ostensibly supportive and sympathetic advocates for special-needs children subtly privilege some minds, some learning styles, some disabilities over others. In particular, in depreciating rote learning, esoteric obsessions, and memorization, they favor the dyslexic over the hyperlexic mind. The winter Benj was applying to kindergarten, I read two articles about dyslexia and hyperlexia, which together struck me in a kind of eureka moment. The first was a Washington Post article about a study from Georgetown, which showed–using brain scans–that hyperlexia was the “true opposite” of dyslexia. Yes, that’s right, I thought: Benj’s memory, mathematical gifts, rhyming ability, mimicry ability are all the strengths that are deficient in dyslexia. The second, an article in the Yale Alumni Magazine about renowned dyslexia expert Sally Shaywitz, encapsulated the way dyslexia is celebrated in an essentially romantic way. Shaywitz described dyslexia as “an island of weakness in a sea of strengths.” Dyslexia is a significant learning disability, but it does not fundamentally affect a person’s social interactions, ability to form relationships, or experience joy. In fact, the emphasis is always that dyslexia is accompanied by striking strengths, gifts, and abilities, particularly in critical and creative thinking. Reading Shaywitz’s claim that “in many cases, dyslexia seems to be associated with an ability to solve problems in original ways, to think not rotely but intuitively and holistically,” I thought to myself: the dyslexic here sounds like the quintessentially creative self, the romantic poet.

In contrast with this, the implication in almost everything I’d read, from Web sites to academic articles, was that hyperlexia is an island of strength in a sea of weaknesses. All the things that are excellent in dyslexia–verbal fluency and spontaneity, cognitive flexibility, people skills–are deficient in hyperlexia. Hyperlexia is typically described as a splinter or savant skill, and the reading that defines it as automatic, rote, meaningful only because basic skills can be taught more easily to an autism-spectrum child with hyperlexia, since they can be reached through the written word. One expert described the reading hyperlexic kids do as “barking at text,” the implication being that it’s animalistic, unreflective, compulsive, and unappreciative.

I think she’s right, and I think it’s a side effect of the type of people who usually go into the professions that produce psychiatric discourse. Empathetic people, good at feelings, opposite to the image of autistic people. Priscilla Gilman’s dissertation was criticized for its “lack of a consistent methodology.” The teaching profession is also full of people who actively dislike math. The school culture does seem to be for calculators and against drills. The problem is that it’s an evidence-based conclusion that you’re forever crippled at math until you have the fundamentals down by rote. Physiologically, you want to transfer the low-level manipulations out of working memory so you can avoid, y’know, losing the forest for the trees (“weak central coherence”). Innumeracy is bad for us, as a society. If I have to hear about “black on black crime” one more time…

This alone shows us that schools are an environment where just listening to conventional wisdom and doing what everyone else is doing can harm children, even academically.

It’s a decision by society not to value its technicians. I think it has to do with the fact that we’re a slave society, and the dealing with the details of anything is associated with lower status. It would be possible for us to decide, as a society, that the power to turn rocks into computers means that Intel should be revered and computer technicians are like clergy. An attitude of wonder instead of boredom could be cultivated. Autistic people would obviously have high status in a society like that.

Hating on autistic people is arbitrary, but our society generally hates on a lot of people. It helps with social cohesion for the white men, who can’t think of a less destructive way.