Synesthesia and Autism

Synesthesia is a neurological difference that is often concurrent with autism.  It’s a sort of mixing of the senses, often described as “crossed wires”, although that’s oversimplified and inaccurate.  While it’s estimated that only 2-4% of the general population has synesthesia, studies show that as many as 20% of autistic people are also synesthetes.  Synesthesia and autism can play into each other and amplify certain issues with communicating about sensory issues.

Types of Synesthesia

While there are many different types of synesthesia, some of the most well-known forms include:

  • Auditory-tactile: this is when sound produces a physical sensation, such as music sending chills up the spine
  • Chromesthesia: in this case, sounds cause you to see colors
  • Grapheme-color: this causes letters and numbers to be associated with specific colors
  • Lexical-gustatory: these big words mean that certain words trigger tastes

Along with these and a few other common forms, there are at least 60-80 further subtypes – and, personally, I think probably even more.  Many synesthetes have more than one type, so many of our senses blend in different ways.

My first memories of experiencing synesthesia were colors of tastes: sugar is blue, salt is yellow, hot spices are red to black, depending on how overpowering they are.  Beyond that, I remember seeing the shape and color of pain – I think an earache was the first time, when I was very small.  It was a sort of inverted L-shape with round squiggly edges, pulsating neon pink that left a black echo spot behind it as if my eyes had actually been hit with the bright color.

Did that make sense to you?  If not, well, that’s part of what can make life hard for autistic people.

Synesthesia Blends with Sensory Differences

Part of the reason that autistic people may struggle to explain BadFeel or GoodFeel textures, sensory aversions, etc. is that our sensory experiences can cross senses.  That makes it hard for us to explain and harder for NTs without synesthesia to understand.

For example, if I describe the pain of a sprained ankle as “sweet”, most people will think I have some masochistic tendency that means I’m enjoying that pain.  That’s not true – it’s just that the specific type of pain that comes from a sprain evokes an echo of a sweet flavor in my brain.  I’ve lived with chronic migraines for over 20 years and I have several types of headache pain that I can describe in shape, color, and quality.  It doesn’t seem to help when talking to my doctors, though. 

As for sensory aversions, I can tell you that touching windbreaker material (I don’t know what it actually is – nylon? Plastic?) with my hands feels like sandpaper dragging up my spine.  It’s just WRONG.  Nubbly upholstery fabrics feel like unfinished wood, like they’re going to give me splinters.

I also run into this a lot with scents.  Many perfumes and cleaning products are what I call “sharp”.  Some people seem to understand this, but I’m not sure if they mean that it hurts their noses or that it has sharp edges, which is what I mean.  My favorite scents for perfume or soaps are “soft and fuzzy”, which for me means that when I smell them, I feel or see soft, blurry edges.  Often, there’s a color involved as well: good scents will usually be purple or a soft rosy color, blue and green can be very sharp or can be soft and lovely, yellow and brown scents are generally bad scents for me.

See how this can lead to a ton of miscommunication between autistics and NTs?

Is Synesthesia Connected to Autism?

Although synesthesia and autism are correlated in some way, the science isn’t there to show an actual connection between the two conditions.  So far, all we can say for sure is that synesthesia is more prevalent among autistic people.  More research may find a connection in the future.

Synesthesia Isn’t a Bad Thing

Although synesthesia can cause problems for autistic people trying to communicate their sensory experiences to other people, it isn’t, in itself, a problem.  Synesthesia isn’t considered a disorder or disability, merely a neurological difference in sensory processing.  In fact, synesthetes are often creatively gifted because they process the world on multiple levels at once.  Speaking for myself, I find that it helps make my fiction writing more interesting when I include synesthetic experiences in descriptions of events and feelings.  Songwriters, poets, painters, and other artists have credited their synesthesia with helping to create their art.

I think of my synesthesia as another part of my sensory differences – I experience the world in more senses at once, and so more intensely or on more levels than a neurotypical person.  It’s not necessarily a part of my autism, but it is part of my autistic experience.

Black line drawing of a brain from the top down with many different colors splattered over it. Blue and white text on a purple background reads "Synesthesia and Autism"

Do you have synesthesia?  Have you struggled to explain your experience or struggled to understand someone else’s experience because of synesthesia?  Did you ever think you were crazy because you experienced senses two or more at a time, or “the wrong way”?

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