When he was 2, Devin Crawford was reading names and ads in the telephone book. A year later, he followed street names on a map of Florida and gave directions to his mother during a trip to Disney World.
And this spring, at the age of 5, he stood before a church audience and read three verses from Ephesians during a youth program.
"That didn't really surprise me because he's always been reading," said Denise Crawford, his mother. "Anything that he can find, he can read. It doesn't matter what it is. Doesn't matter how hard."
An energetic pre-schooler who lives with his parents in Highlandtown and attends Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School in East Baltimore, Devin was diagnosed as having "autistic-like" characteristics in tests during the last two years.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by speech and socialization difficulties. In many instances, youngsters display abnormal abilities in some skills but are below average in others.
Devin, for example, reads at the level of a seventh-grader and has the comprehension skills of a fifth-grade student. He also performs well in subjects such as math, tests show. But he still needs to improve his speech and socialization skills, school officials say.
At school, while most of his classmates are learning the sounds that each letter makes, Devin has read nearly all of the 100 books on the classroom shelves.
And while many schoolmates have books read to them by the teacher -- which is normal for a class of 4- and 5-year-olds -- Devin often serves as a "mentor" and reads books to his fellow students.
"He not only reads, but he reads with expression," said Juanita Campbell, Devin's teacher in the half-day, pre-kindergarten special education program he attends. "In my 23 years of teaching, I've never seen a child like him."
For example, he recently amazed school principal Willie L. Grier Jr., who pulled a life insurance policy from his pocket and half-jokingly asked him to read it.
Devin, dressed in his school uniform of a yellow dress shirt and navy pants and tie, took the request seriously. "Term life insurance element requires you to adjust your premium on the policy's anniversary date," he said, never hesitating or stumbling among the multisyllable words.
Dorothea Jordan, a school psychologist who once evaluated Devin, said his special education program, like others in city schools, stresses socialization. "It's not just manners but interaction with others."
The eight students in Devin's class learn language and socialization skills, as well as basic academic subjects, Mr. Grier said. Devin also has a special reading tutor.
"His problem is with speech," Mr. Grier said. "We've got to get him to slow down. I think he's in another world. . . . He's like a computer whiz. He just reads through everything zip, zip, zip."
School officials and his parents said Devin will most likely remain in the public school system.
Devin's parents want him to develop socially at a normal pace, without putting too much emphasis on his reading talents and the possibility of special schools.
"Social development might be better in [public school]. His academic development might be better in private," Ms. Jordan said.
Devin remains modest about his reading talent.
"It's just a gift," he said. "But I try to read everything twice."
Or even more often. Despite the many books Devin has read at home, he still occasionally reads the phone book, said his mother, who works for the Army in a downtown office. Her husband, Devin's father, works for the U.S. Postal Service.
"He loves the Yellow Pages," she said. "He would always turn to the ad for [attorney] Stephen L. Miles. That was his favorite. He would always go right to that ad and read it."