Is There a Link Between Synesthesia and Autism?

Is There a Link Between Synesthesia and Autism?

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 in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight.

Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor.

The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn(together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means “joined perception” (Neuroscience for kids). 

Synesthesia is not widely known. It is a rare phenomenon that occurs in only about 1% of the population. It is not a disorder or a disability; rather, it is sometimes called an “extreme ability.” A person with synesthesia basically has two different perceptions of the sam stimulus. In other words, they may hear color, see sounds, or taste a physical touch.

Synesthesia can occur with any of the senses, but the most common is with colored letters and numbers. 

For example, a synesthete (a person with synesthesia) 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.

There are some people who 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, if one synesthete thinks that the letter “q” is colored blue, another synesthete might see “q” as orange (Neuroscience for Kids). 

Diagnosis of Synestesia

Unfortunately, there isn’t one specific way to diagnose synesthesia, however, Richard Cytowic, MD, a leading synesthesia researcher, has come up with specific guidelines for doctors and researchers to determine if a child does, in fact, have synesthesia.

These guidelines 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 when you are 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 remembered better 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 feeling.

Who Has Synesthesia?

There has only been one study to date which 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 the immediate family who has been diagnosed. 

Synaesthesia and autism seem on the surface to be rather different things, with synaesthesia defined as a ‘joining of the senses’ in which music may trigger colours or words may trigger tastes, and autism defined by impaired social understanding and communication.

The 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 synaesthetes tended not to report difficulties on the traditional communicative symptoms that usually define autism. While the research shows that there are certainly links between the two conditions, these appear to be sensory rather than social (Science Daily). 

Reinforcing their initial research, it shows that synaesthesia 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, I would definitely get he/she diagnosed!

It isn’t a bad/negative thing at all. In fact, it might help them later in life with memory and recall of information! 

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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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