“Couche-Tard”. When their autistic baby spoke the title of this well-known chain of Quebec comfort shops out loud within the automotive, his dad and mom couldn’t imagine their ears. How may their four-year-old have learn the signal as they drove by?
Till then, he’d by no means uttered a single phrase.
This case of hyperlexia, the power to decipher letters and teams of letters earlier than the age of 5, was an inspiration for Alexia Ostrolenk, a PhD candidate in biomedical sciences at Université de Montréal.
“It’s not an unknown phenomenon in science, however we’re simply starting to discover it,” she mentioned.
Research have proven that between six and 20 per cent of autistic youngsters exhibit hyperlexia, however the prevalence may very well be even increased, mentioned Ostrolenk.
“It’s one thing that’s not at all times noticed in a medical setting, as a result of dad and mom and medical workers don’t pay sufficient consideration to it,” she mentioned.
A fascination with writing
If a toddler systematically performs round with the letters on the magnetic board within the playroom, she or he could could also be exhibiting their fascination with writing. Some have even been recognized to start out studying a overseas language by studying textual content off an digital pill.
“There are additionally stories of autistic youngsters with the ability to write subtitles for video clips on YouTube,” mentioned Ostrolenk.
As a part of her thesis supervised by UdeM psychiatry professor Laurent Mottron, the younger researcher is taking an in depth take a look at hyperlexia in autistic youngsters. When does it seem? How and why does it happen?
Her findings, she hopes, will result in improved remedy for kids with autism.
“For a very long time hyperlexia was regarded as a form of obsession and a few clinicians had the reflex to suppress it,” she mentioned. “I imagine that, quite the opposite, it’s a college that may be put to good use within the remedy of autism, given the very frequent problem these youngsters have in establishing coherent communication with their setting.”
However are youngsters with hyperlexia actually studying?
“It’s a tough query,” mentioned Ostrolenk. “We imagine they’re fascinated by the drawings that letters kind in affiliation with sounds. They’re searching for patterns. It’s like a form of sound and visible puzzle for them.”
Observing 200 youngsters
To finish her doctoral research, the researcher plans to conduct medical observations of 200 youngsters. About 60 have already been recruited, however the COVID-19 pandemic has barely delayed the method.
Ostrolenk and Mottron have designed an in depth questionnaire by which dad and mom are requested to point their baby’s curiosity in letters and phrases. If adopted broadly (“that might be my want,” Ostrolenk mentioned) it might make it simpler to detect hyperlexia throughout medical assessments.
In a parallel research, the younger researcher has been following a pair of hyperlexic twins for 4 years. The twins are actually eight years previous. This analysis venture is among the many first to be carried out on an extended time-scale.
Ostrolenk is from France. She obtained her bachelor’s diploma in life sciences there, from Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC). She went on to finish her grasp’s diploma in mind and thoughts sciences at College Faculty London in 2012, earlier than returning to Paris for a second grasp’s diploma, this time in cognitive neuroscience at UPMC and the École normale supérieure.
“The mind has at all times fascinated me – its complexity, its mysteries,” Ostrolenk mentioned.
It was an internship at Leka, a French start-up that manufactures a robotic sensible toy for autistic youngsters, that led Ostrolenk to do her first experiments in a specialised institution. Desirous to dive additional into the world of “totally different intelligences,” in 2017 she started her PhD at UdeM.
Along with her work in psychiatry, Alexia Ostrolenk enjoys speaking her science to non-specialized audiences. Final month, she received second place in UdeM’s “My thesis in 180 seconds” competitors.
Her presentation could be seen here, in French.