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.