Is There a Link between Synesthesia and Autism?
Jan 19, 2022 Imagine that when you picture a skyscraper, you taste blueberries. Maybe you’ll read the number two and see the color red. You might be totally convinced that Thursdays are a light blue color. This is called synethesia.
What is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a condition where one sense (for example, hearing) is perceived at the same time as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Laura Moss says that “Synesthetes – or people who have synesthesia – may see sounds, taste words, or feel a sensation on their skin when they smell certain scents. They may also see abstract concepts like time projected in the space around them.”
Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers, or people’s names with a smell, color, or flavor. More simply, this means that a synesthete might see the number ‘2’ as “blue.”
The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn(together) and aisthesis (perception). So, synesthesia literally means “joined perception” (Neuroscience for Kids).
Synesthesia is a rare phenomenon occurring in only about 1% of the population. It is not a disorder or a disability; rather, experts sometimes refer to it as an “extreme ability.”
Synesthesia can occur with any of the senses, but the most common is with colored letters and numbers.
So far, we know that a synesthete might see the word ‘plane’ as mint green or the number ‘4’ as dark brown. There are also synesthetes who hear sounds in response to smell, who smell in response to touch, or who feel something in response to sight. Just about any combination of the senses is possible.
Some people possess synesthesia involving three or even more senses, but this is extremely rare.
Synesthetic perceptions are specific to each person. Different people with synesthesia almost always disagree on their perceptions. In other words, though one synesthete thinks the letter ‘q’ as blue, another synesthete might see ‘q’ as orange (Neuroscience for Kids).
Diagnosis of Synesthesia
Unfortunately, there isn’t one specific way to diagnose synesthesia. However, Richard Cytowic, M.D., a leading synesthesia researcher, has come up with specific guidelines for doctors and researchers to determine if a child has synesthesia.
These guidelines of perception types include:
- Involuntary: synesthetes do not actively think about their perceptions; they just happen.
- Projected: rather than experiencing something in the “mind’s eye,” as might happen if asked to imagine a color, a synesthete often actually sees a color projected outside of the body.
- Durable and generic: the perception must be the same every time; for example, if you taste chocolate when you hear Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, you must always taste chocolate when you hear it; also, the perception must be generic — that is, you may see colors or lines or shapes in response to a certain smell, but you would not see something complex such as a room with people and furniture and pictures on the wall.
- Memorable: often, the secondary synesthetic perception is more memorable than the primary perception; for example, a synesthete who always associates the color purple with the name “Laura” will often remember that a woman’s name is purple rather than actually remembering “Laura.”
- Emotional: the perceptions may cause emotional reactions such as pleasurable feelings.
Who Develops Synesthesia?
There has only been one study so far that looks at who is more likely to develop synesthesia. It shows that women are more likely to have this condition, as well as people who are left-handed, have normal or above-average intelligence, and if there is a member of their immediate family who has a diagnosis.
At first glance, synesthesia and autism seem to be different conditions, with synesthesia defined as a “joining of the senses” in which music may trigger colors or words may trigger tastes. In contrast, the defining characteristic of autism is impairment in social understanding and communication.
New research shows that both groups report heightened sensory sensitivity such as an aversion to certain sounds and lights, as well as reporting differences in their tendency to attend to detail.
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However, the synesthetes tended not to report difficulties on the traditional communicative symptoms that usually define autism. While research shows that there are links between the two conditions, these appear to be sensory rather than social (Science Daily).
Initial research shows that synesthesia tends to be particularly prevalent in people with autism who also have unexpected ‘savant’ abilities, such as superior abilities in arithmetic, memory, and art. So, think of the movie, “Rainman.” People who have the characteristics of super high intelligence are more likely to have synesthesia.
This is a really interesting condition and if you think that your child may be exhibiting signs of synesthesia, you should definitely make an appointment with your doctor, a psychologist, or neurologist, though most people self/diagnose. In fact, there are several synesthesia tests to self-diagnose.
It isn’t a bad/negative thing at all. In fact, it might help them later in life with memory and recall of information!