Early reading hurts social skills and academic performance

My son was in a preschool classroom with ten kids who could read by age three. The kids all had autism diagnoses because the correlation between reading by age three and Autism was widely known, even back then. The teachers permitted only books without words, and toys could not have any letters on them. The teachers aimed to have the kids spend more time playing like neurotypical three-year-olds and less time decoding language.

Meanwhile, I came from a family that not only collected books but collected figurines of people with books. And it was news to me that three was early for reading. I don’t know who learned more during that year of preschool—me or my son.

Early reading rewires the brain
While the correlation between early reading and Autism has been clear, I have just recently seen a study that shows causation. That is, when kids start reading too early the place in the brain that looks at faces becomes smaller than it would be otherwise. This shrinkage leads to low emotional intelligence because the child has decreased processing power to read faces. The smaller brain area for looking at faces also leads to speech impediments, because the child misses sounds they would learn from looking at someone’s face to see how the mouth forms the sound or to see if the person is hearing the sound.

Early reading is a marker for poor reading comprehension
Something the teachers didn’t tell me was that precocious language decoding signals a comprehension deficiency. Both my son and I were early readers and I didn’t find out we were both dyslexic until he was fourteen. Both my son and I were shocked. In a good way, really. We were shocked that no one told us sooner. It seemed so obvious the evaluator explained it to us: dyslexia is a wide label that includes comprehension. Early readers have poor comprehension because the brain separated decoding language from comprehending language in order to decode before it made sense.

Early reading amplifies problems later in life
The problems from early reading start growing geometrically because the kids who were early readers have social skills problems, and they have reading comprehension problems, and they can’t describe the problems because their IQ is so high that neither of the problems makes logical sense.

I kept thinking how could I not have known earlier? Why did we not get help earlier? But I’m sure it’s because neither my son nor I said anything was wrong. Like so many other aspects of Autistic life, we just assumed that the way we read is normal. We love reading. We had no idea reading is way, way easier for other people. And we had no idea how much our reading skills were holding us back.

Okay. So what should you do?
If you have a two or three-year-old who is trying to read, stop them. Get rid of the books with words in them. And refuse to help decode words and sounds. There is plenty in this world to learn besides reading. Here are some fun books with no words and each of these authors wrote lots of books with no words:

I Can’t Sleep by Dupasquier

Anno’s Journey by Mitsumasa Anno

Parade by Donald Crews

Hurricane by David Wiesner

Frog, Where Are You? by Mercer Mayer

If you or your kids were early readers you should schedule a coaching session with me and I can show you all of this in your and your kids. I had to pay $5,000 for a full evaluation but really, you don’t need to pay that much to figure all this out. Understanding how we read explains so much about the choices we make in life. I can’t believe people don’t talk about this more. You can’t fix it, but each of us can work around it, and that’s especially important for kids.

10 replies
  1. Jeanette
    Jeanette says:

    I read at 2. I’m very social. You’re describing a subset of kids. There are multiple types of hyperlexia. That said all hyperlexics derive pleasure from decoding and it’s a wonderful tool to HELP comprehension. Sorry I think this is awful advice.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You can be very social and still have social skills deficits. Autism means you miss social cues but you don’t know you miss them. So by definition, women with Autism are social and do not know that they are not good at being social.


      • RPT
        RPT says:

        At the very least I really think this article deserves:
        1) The actual definition of hyperlexia, and
        2) What you mean by “reading” — there’s a big difference between a 2 year old phonetically sounding out the word “cat” and reading the dictionary.

        Hyperlexia is a very specific type of early reading that’s highly correlated with autism, but I’m confused about why you didn’t clarify that in this post. You’re also right that hyperlexia is strongly tied to reading without comprehension, but like the commenter mentions, this is a sub-set of kids.

        I’m a mom of a precocious reader who read his first word at about 24 months. at 3 he reads a few words, if and only if he feels like it. When he read early, I was scared that my son might be autistic and it took talking to his pediatrician, an OT, and about half a dozen childcare experts to confirm that he had no early symptoms of autism, he just enjoys reading. I think there’s a lot of fear-mongering out there on the internet and preying on parents’ worries for their kids. I’m disappointed to see that you would participate in that culture in such an unbalanced way.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    This was challenging for me to read. I was trying to figure out what letters were and strings of letters meant from probably age two, and I have clear memories of reading at three. Nothing complicated — signs, mostly. I loved the big neon BUS sign at the Greyhound terminal in my hometown. I struggled through reading my first book, Little Toot before I entered Kindergarten. I was incredibly proud of myself when I managed it.

    Then I entered Kindergarten — this was in the early 70s, when that was still all about socialization and play — and I remember my teacher being displeased when I read a book aloud to my classmates. This was the same teacher who saw that I could form letters equally well with a crayon in either hand, and forced me to use my right hand.

    I didn’t have trouble comprehending what I read, not at all, until I entered about middle school and we started reading novels in Engilsh class. I remember reading Wuthering Heights and having no idea what was going on through the whole book. But I think that’s where my challenges with social skills were starting to emerge. That book was all about the subtexts among the characters and even when people told me what was happening, I still couldn’t see it. I started reading Cliffs Notes for books like that because they said plainly what was going on, and I could at least memorize those details well enough to pass tests and write essays.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This describes my experience as well. My 1970s kindergarten teacher was so annoyed with my reading. And I also had trouble with Wuthering Heights!


  3. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    People who demonstrate extraordinary abilities frequently have varying degrees of social skills deficits; history is littered with examples.
    How our brains form likely causes the precocious reading, not the other way around. I have a precocious reader with social skills deficits, an average age reader with good social skills, but I struggled with both reading and social skills.
    That we should prevent children from naturally developing early reading skills by not allowing them access to words is abusive quackery.

  4. Minami
    Minami says:

    I have a hard time understanding how the articles you linked show that early reading rewires the brain the way you say it does.

    The Inc article you link to instead says that scientists have found that reading fiction “makes you nicer and more empathetic”. The conclusion of that article is that “[reading] strengthens your ability to imagine alternative paths, remember details, picture detailed scenes, and think through complex problems. In short, reading makes you not just more knowledgeable, but also functionally smarter.”

    Note: it says reading makes you *functionally* smarter – something that people with autism need a lot of help with.

    It doesn’t say anything about early reading causing socio-emotional or language comprehension deficits.

    The other article you cite states that “reading proficiency was associated with higher nonverbal cognition and expressive language” and stresses “the importance of early language skills as a foundation for reading in children with ASD.” In other words, focusing on language skills are important for kids as a foundation to reading – not that reading hinders language skills.

    It’s possible there are articles out there that bolster the points you make in this post, but the ones you link to don’t seem to do that…

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I think part of this, Minami, is PT’s style. It’s agonistic – the truth is found by arguing with people. She reads into the articles, many of which are good reads, and then creates the most extreme, over-generalized, and even contradictory slant on what they say. It provokes many a good discussion, and probably leads more people to read her sources than a more pleasant and anodyne read would.

      I am certain that some of her conclusions are somewhat true for some kids, and that there is some degree of support in her sources. But as a summary of what they say? Rarely so straightforward. Those subheads, if taken literally, are roundly untrue. But they’re thought-provoking, no?

      Neither of my kids was an early reader, although I was. I was treated very badly in my first school because I could already read, and that was the beginning of years of strife. I did end up learning several foreign languages, getting a PhD, several professional certifications based on study, etc. And somehow I still love reading.

      My kids, who didn’t read early? One of them is on the autism spectrum, and the other has mad social skills and slow processing skills. Just what the scary subheads say might happen if they read early.

      This part, though:

      Okay. So what should you do?
      If you have a two or three-year-old who is trying to read, stop them. Get rid of the books with words in them. And refuse to help decode words and sounds.

      That’s a hard no. Furthermore, it goes against pretty much every principle of child-directed learning ever espoused on this blog. Don’t ever stop kids from learning what they want to. That’s cruelty on the basis of theories. If your kid teaches himself to read early, understand that’s one struggle you won’t have – and probably some other struggles you will have. Who would create extra struggles in parenting? It’s complicated enough without such procrustean measures.

  5. lisa
    lisa says:

    Being a teacher of course I would always encourage children to read at any age when they show the interest. However getting children to read at age 2 seems a little extreme.

    One reason why the teachers at your son’s school discouraged reading was probably because they were specialists in autism, if I am reading you correctly. That’s a different sort of program that is set up for a specific group of children. The rest of us are trained to have books with words and labels all around the classrooms. It’s expected and we have to live up to that premise or hoo boy, are we in trouble!!

  6. Jen
    Jen says:

    This is so interesting. My son is 2.5 and loves being read to. He’s starting to recognize letters, and I was just saying to my husband that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s reading in a year, so this is perfect timing. I requested some of the books you recommended from the library. He often asks that we read the same book again and again, so we’ll often look at the pictures together instead of reading the words or I’ll ask questions about the pictures – so I can make a point to do that more, too. It’s fun to see something new in the books we’ve read a million times.

Comments are closed.